Chester Rotarians and Bikes for Kids Unite for Hurricane Harvey Victims
by Rita Christopher
/ OLD SAYBROOK —
The Chester Rotary Club and Bikes for Kids, an Essex-based nonprofit, with an assist from Boy Scout Troop 12, have sent 213 bicycles and helmets to Houston to victims of Hurricane Harvey, which devastated the city in August 2017. Most of the bicycles will go to children, but some will also go to adults at a drug recovery and rehabilitation center.
“Bicycles are their only means of transportation,” said Bob Gebhard, a past Rotary district governor in the Houston area.
Bikes for Kids accepts donated bicycles, reconditions them, and gives them to adults and children in need. Along with the bike, each recipient gets a helmet. The group works to find recipients through schools, churches, social service organizations, and non-profits as well as individuals.
Dave Fowler, president of Bikes for Kids, suggested the idea of sending bicycles to Houston to Ron Woodward, a past president of Chester Rotary. They had originally met through Chester Rotary’s annual recognition dinner at which the group makes grants to local organizations, among them Bikes for Kids.
“That organization is very dear to us,” said Woodward. “Dave had the idea of sending bikes to Houston because in natural disasters where homes and cars have been destroyed by flooding, people can use bikes to get around.”
It took a lot of coordination and a lot of people to turn the idea into reality. Woodward spoke to Chester Rotary member Paul Indorf, now an assistant district governor for Rotary in Southern Connecticut; Indorf contacted Southern Connecticut District Governor Bill Palko about the project. Palko, in turn, contacted Gebhard in Houston. Gebhard asked local Rotary Clubs to scout for potential recipients.
Fowler and his volunteers at Bikes for Kids needed more than names. They wanted ages, heights, and whether the recipient was male or female so each bike could be customized for its intended rider.
Gebhard provided that information, but there was still a problem: Some 1,750 miles separates Houston from Essex and transporting the bicycles was a costly proposition. Fowler contacted trucking companies to see if they could make space available as a donation or at reduced rates.
“I asked as far up as Boston,” he recalled, but companies he spoke to told him they had already donated trucks to carry emergency supplies to Houston and could not do more. “I had just about given up when Rotary came by and said, ‘Let us look into it.’”
Rich Malcarne, the logistics manager at BJM Pump, the Old Saybrook Company of which Woodward is president, negotiated a reduced shipping rate with FedEx. The Rotary clubs of Chester and Houston split the $1,900 cost.
Getting the trailer was one step, but getting 203 bikes on the trailer was another. That’s where Essex Scout Troop 12, which had previously volunteered at Bikes for Kids, came in.
Scoutmaster Rich Helchowski organized some 18 members of the troop to load bikes. The handlebars of the bikes were lined up sideways and the pedals zip-tied to the frames to narrow the bicycles’ profiles and fit as many as possible in the trailer. The crew loaded so efficiently that they were able to add 10 extra bicycles to the delivery. Instead of 203, they were able to fit 213 into the truck.
“It took about an hour and a half,” Helchowski said.
The scouts who participated get to add hours to their volunteer profiles.
“It feels great to be doing something nice, especially for kids who went through something like that, losing so much,” said Helchowski’s son Tim, a junior at Valley Regional High School and a member of the troop.
The scouts also got a more tangible benefit as they worked: pizza.
The trip to Houston is estimated to take about a week. The project is the largest Bikes for Kids has ever completed. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the group sent 140 bicycles to Belle Harbor on Long Island, hard hit by that storm. With the load going to Houston, Bikes for Kids has given away 21,606 bicycles since its founding in 1986 by the late Chuck Graeb of Old Lyme.
Fowler, a retired elementary school teacher, took over in 2009. In all those years and all those bicycles, one thing has remained constant.
“We have never sold a bicycle. That’s a big operating principle,” Fowler said.