When David Schweidenback was in Ecuador as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1970s, he noticed that everyone walked everywhere, except for his landlord — he had a bicycle. With that bike, he got more accomplished in a day than anyone else.
Schweidenback returned to the U.S. and didn’t think much more about bikes and productivity. He married, raised a family and ran a successful construction company. Eventually, though, he started to notice how many discarded bicycles ended up in basements, garages and landfills. And he had an idea for using them to make a difference.
“People were just throwing out perfectly good bikes because they didn’t know what to do with them,” says Schweidenback. “I decided to collect 12 bikes to ship back to the town where I was a Peace Corps volunteer.”
Once he got started, the project snowballed. When he had about 150 bikes, he went to the Ecuadorian Consulate and explained his plan. The man he spoke to was polite and listened. Then, he basically said: “No.”
Undaunted, Schweidenback found a local church that was sending containers of food and medical supplies to Nicaragua. “I explained that mobility is the key to success. You go to work. You go to school. You go shopping,” says Schweidenback. “On a bike, you get there quicker.”
Our goal is to help our partners directly become better businessmen so that they will help grow their economy.
— David Schweidenback, Pedals for Progress
The church agreed to add the bikes to their shipments. That was the start.
The Wheels Get Turning
In 1991, Schweidenback founded Pedals for Progress, a nonprofit that has sent more than 144,000 bikes to poor people in developing countries around the globe. Some are used as personal bicycles, while others are transformed into taxis, produce trucks, farm machinery and even trash haulers. In addition, Schweidenback has begun gathering and sending sewing machines — more than 3,000 so far.
But Schweidenback doesn’t give these items away, as he did in the beginning. Why? He says that once, when he was in Ghana visiting with his contact who handed out the bikes for free, he noticed a “really nice bike — and I knew it was one of mine because of the brand name — lying in a ditch, down in the mud.” Perturbed, he asked the chief of the tribe why the bike was in the ditch.
The man winked at Schweidenback and his contact and said: “If it breaks, you’ll just give me another one.” That put an end to giveaways.
“We are introducing a commodity into a capitalistic economy. We’re trying to spur the economy,” says Schweidenback. “I’m not saying you sell it for a lot of money. Our goal is to help our partners directly become better businessmen so that they will help grow their economy.”
How It Works
Hundreds of volunteers help collect bikes for Pedals for Progress. Schweidenback works with sponsoring groups in the greater New York City and Philadelphia, Pa. areas. Rotary clubs, high schools, middle schools and even Boy Scout troops participate.
Once a year, volunteers hold bike collections. Pedals for Progress trains them to to partially disassemble the bikes for easier to transport by truck. The nonprofit asks all people who donate a bike to also donate $10, which pays for the truck’s gas and driver.
There are 500 bikes in every container shipped overseas. A handful of high-end bikes are sold for $200 to $300; the majority are sold for $20 to $50 and some go for just a few dollars. Years ago, Pedals for Progress conducted a study and discovered that the average bike recipient had a 14 percent increase in income during the first week of owning the bike.
For years, people asked Schweidenback if they could start a branch of Pedals for Progress in their state or country. Instead of having such groups affiliated with his, he taught them how to start their own. He has advised everyone from the Mayor of Tokyo to a group in Australia and others in Europe.
Why does Schweidenback keep the program rolling? “This year, I will lift four thousand families permanently out of poverty,” Schweidenback says. “So it’s quite satisfying.”
Tips When Starting a Volunteer Organization
Schweidenback says that you need to keep the following in mind when starting your own organization:
- You have to be willing to sacrifice just about everything — but do it with a smile on your face.
- Embrace your failure. Not everything you do is going to work out the way you plan. Instead of getting discouraged, realize that you will have both good days and bad.
- Be willing to work a lot of hours — especially at the beginning. Until he got help, Schweidenback was doing all the work himself.
- Know your limits. As he got older, Schweidenback hired people to pick up the bikes and hired a part-time office manager. He realized that he couldn’t do everything on his own.