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Vermonters collect used bikes and sewing machines for developing countries

Published: 9/24/2021 10:10:18 PM
Modified: 9/24/2021 10:10:25 PM

Why leave that old bike or sewing machine in your garage to collect dust when they could change lives in Guatemala?

Green Mountain Returned Peace Corps Volunteers will be collecting used bikes and sewing machines this weekend for Pedals for Progress, a nonprofit that sends them to developing countries where they become essential economic and livelihood tools.

“Every one of these bikes represents a minimum 15% increase of income for the individual who gets it,” Dave Schweidenback, founder and CEO of Pedals for Progress, said in a phone interview.

The Vermont-based Peace Corps volunteers group has donated more than 4,000 bikes and 600 sewing machines for Pedals for Progress since the Burlington collections began in 1999. Due to demand from Vermonters around the state, a collection point in Montpelier has been added for this weekend.

The Montpelier collection site is in a parking lot at National Life on Friday from 3:30 to 7 p.m. In Burlington, the collection point is the Burton Snowboard Flagship Store on Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Based in New Jersey, Pedals for Progress has been collecting bikes from the Northeast through collections put on by local organizations since 1991. Since then, it has shipped 162,399 bikes and 5,242 sewing machines to developing countries.

According to Schweidenback, 18 million new bikes are bought in the U.S. each year, most of them adult bikes.

Pedals for Progress recycles bikes and sewing machines, keeping them out of the local waste stream while also providing people with economic and livelihood opportunities they would not otherwise have, said Wendy Rice, president of the Green Mountain Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Association, in a phone interview.

Schweidenback started Pedals for Progress after returning from the Peace Corps himself. While he was stationed in Ecuador, he and the people around him walked everywhere. Once he got home to New Jersey, he kept noticing bikes being thrown out.

Knowing firsthand how access to bikes would improve the lives in the Ecuadorian community where he lived for 2½ years, Schweidenback came up with the idea of shipping unwanted bikes to developing countries.

“My goal was to find a way to mobilize resources to improve life in the developing world,” Schweidenback told VTDigger.

Thirty years later, Schweidenback has sent bicycles and/or sewing machines to communities in 38 countries around the world.

Once he has 500 bikes, Schweidenback fills a cargo truck and ships it to one of the countries that Pedals for Progress is working with at that time. The bikes collected in Vermont will be part of a shipment going to Guatemala, Schweidenback said.

The bikes are not handed out for free, which Schweidenback said would create unequal distribution. Instead, they are given to a local organization, which pays for the shipment, then sells the bikes for cheap. That way, they can raise money — about $14,000 per container sent to them — for a program that goes back into the community, while also creating jobs and boosting the local economy.

“You have to sell it. You have to work within the economy,” Schweidenback said. “If I started giving bikes away, every bike shop would go out of business.”

Margarita Caté de Catú, founder and president of the Foundation for Sustainable Development and the Environment — the Pedals for Progress partner in Chimaltenango, Guatemala — uses bike profits to help fund the foundation’s programs. The organization works to make the community more self-sufficient through agricultural and medical help, job training, environmental conservation, and health and special education for people with physical disabilities.

Not only do the bikes and sewing machines bring in profits for organizations, they also improve the lives of those who save up money to buy them for cheap. Bikes allow people who would otherwise walk everywhere the power to travel with ease.

The bikes “provide access to transportation to school and health care, as well as a way to transport goods and services,” Rice said in a phone interview. “And the sewing machines are directly used often by women groups doing sewing, quilting, embroidery for their livelihood for generations.”

In 1992, when Schweidenback started the oldest-running program — partnering with EcoBicicletas in Rivas, Nicaragua — he said the average child did not complete fourth grade. Often, that was because they had to walk so far that they did not have time to do work their families needed before and after school. So they dropped out.

Today, most people in Rivas have a bicycle, and students can ride to school in 15 minutes where it used to take around an hour and a half to walk each way.

“The average kid in Rivas, Nicaragua, completes high school, fundamentally changing that entire region,” Schweidenback said. “They went from elementary school to completing high school because of the mobility of a bicycle.”

Mobility is a key to an economy, and an economy is a combination of the exchange of goods and services. By giving people a faster way to distribute goods, you grow the local economy, Schweidenback told VTDigger.

Beyond helping other people, Schweidenback said it’s in the best interests of the United States to help them.

“If the developing world actually developed, it would push us to the moon,” Schweidenback said. “Where are they going to buy all their stuff they want? They’re going to buy it from us.”

The Green Mountain Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Association continues to hold collections every year because “it’s a really powerful way for us to still contribute overseas and to help people better themselves and have more opportunities,” Rice said.

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