Working Bikes donates bicycles to communities in Chicago and in countries from Central America to Africa. For many, having a bike means having access to education, employment, and other necessary resources. Working Bikes reduces pollution, encourages healthy habits, and broadens opportunities for their bike recipients. In Working Bikes’ Chicago HQ, people can learn how to fix-up bikes and participate in their various events.
How did Working Bikes get its start?
Amy: We started 23 years ago as the Founders and now are on the Board of Directors. Lee hated seeing bikes going to the junkyard in Chicago, so he rescued them and would bring them to our house. It quickly became too many bikes for our basement and we had to pivot. Lee had spent time in Central America and I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala. We knew that bikes would be useful there because we were familiar with the environment and culture. We started fixing up Lee’s rescued bikes ourselves to give away, but since we aren’t professionals we eventually had to find some good mechanics to get the bikes road-worthy.
Lee: We worked in tandem with Pastures for Peace, which was an organization that sent caravans to Central America that were loaded with useful stuff for people, including our bikes. We were trying to be good Samaritans and help the people in Central America. Initially, we were getting bikes from alley trash and junkyards. Once we started getting donations from bike shops, we eventually were able to stop taking in junkyard bikes.
Can you tell me about where your bikes are going today?
Lee: We sell about 10% of our bikes, which funds all the other work that we do. The rest are given away either locally in Chicago or internationally through our partner organizations in various countries. The need in Chicago is so great and we love working with this population. The around 7,000 bikes we send internationally are not fixed yet, we send those raw. Our partners on the ground fix up the bikes and either sell them or give them away to teachers and health care workers.
Amy: Some of the partners we ship to are women mechanic groups in Africa. They didn’t know anything about bike mechanics before working with us, so it’s given them a whole new skillset. We even were able to send people to train them to be better bike mechanics. A lot of development organizations have discovered that if you help women, you help all of society. The women we work with make great money and we are investing in their community. When we went to visit our partner in El Salvador, we were surprised at how many bike stores there are in such a small country, half of which are run by women. These bikes are able to lift up entire communities and make a big impact.
How do you choose which organizations to partner with?
Amy: It’s been a learning process. Sometimes, when we ship containers of bikes, it gets really difficult to get through local customs. There is a lot of corruption and bribes going on in some countries which limits where we are able to work. We want to work in places where there is a need to be met, and where there is an organization who can help us fix up and distribute bikes.
Lee: These kinds of organizations all know about each other since they are doing similar work. They share information about which ones are well run and worth partnering with. So, we ended up finding out about newer programs from our previous partners. You really only need one partner in the country that you’re targeting.
What has been the best part of starting Working Bikes?
Amy: As an ex-Peace Corps volunteer, I love having a sense of community. Our volunteers and staff are an amazing community, they put in work just for the sake of helping others. Everyone shows up for the same reason. Our model allows us to be pretty self-sufficient, which is great. We lean on each other to create this welcoming, amazing space.
Lee: We’re giving people a way to learn a new skill and test out a potential career path. You can learn how to fix up a bicycle if you want to be a mechanic and get real work experience. At almost every bike shop I’ve been to in Chicago, I recognize one of the mechanics because they started out with us.