Bikes for Haiti: Quake victims get wheels

Sixth grader Luke Konishesky, 11-years-old, works on a bike at Lyme Old Lyme Middle school that will be shipped to Haiti to help earthquake victims there. (Photos by Peter Casolino)

Sixth grader Luke Konishesky, 11-years-old, works on a bike at Lyme Old Lyme Middle school that will be shipped to Haiti to help earthquake victims there. (Photos by Peter Casolino)

by Karena Garrity

OLD LYME - When Bikes for Kids gives a new bicycle to a Haitian quake victim, it is like giving someone a luxury car here, as it is such a precious commodity.

Bikes are the sole transportation for many Haitians and some ride on bikes with only rims and no tires. Many have lost their only mode of transportation.

“Giving a bike to someone in Haiti, is literally like giving a BMW to someone in America,” explains Dave Fowler, a volunteer in the Bikes For Kids program, which was started in 1989 by Chuck Graeb, of Old Lyme who passed away in September.

Graeb, who grew up poor in the Bronx, during the Great Depression, never had a bike as a kid. He vowed to himself has a youngster that when and if he could, he would make sure that any child who wanted a bike would have one, because he didn’t. Keeping true to his promise, Graeb gave away over 12,000 bikes to needy kids through his Bikes for Kids organization, including over 30 bikes for special needs riders.

“I always thought it was a rotten feeling to grow up, as a kid, and never have a bike, and see other kids riding bikes, so when I retired I said maybe I can help other kids in the future” said Graeb in an interview on the Real American Stories Web site. “For the kids that receive these bikes, knowing that someone out there cares for them is just as important as receiving the bikes.”

“We are just trying to keep Charlie’s dream alive,” says Fowler, of his late friend.

“This organization is such a great service to the kids on the shoreline all the way over to New Haven, over to Westerly R.I and up to Middletown.” Fowler is currently working with several other volunteers, as well as his students at Old Lyme Middle School, to repair and collect approximately 100 bikes to be shipped to Haiti.

“Many people in Haiti, lost not only their homes and possessions but also any mode of transportation they had. In addition, gasoline is hard to come by right now in Haiti. Residents are literally riding around on bikes with no tires, just rims, which is still, remarkably a better choice of transportation for many of them, than walking the several miles they need to for work or food,” explains Fowler of the obvious need.

He adds, “Bikes for Kids usually tries to focus more locally on need, but this is an unusual set of circumstances so we are trying to help out the best we can. It is a great feeling to be able to give aid on a scale such as this.”

The collected and refurbished bikes will be shipped, via boat, to Les Cayes, Haiti, the town that many residents of Port-au-Prince found refuge in after the debilitating January earthquake, literally rocked their world.

Fowler, along with other Bikes for Kids volunteers are orchestrating the bike give away with the help of Pastor Lubin Beaucejour of the Bethesda Evangelical Mission in Wallingford.

“Haiti needs many other supplies right now and the price of fuel to get the boats to Haiti is very expensive so shipping bikes alone in a container is just not justified, although we wish we could send more” explains Fowler. “There will also be generators, medical supplies and food in our container, in hopes of helping the Haitian people get back on their feet.”

Right now, Bikes for Kids needs more volunteers who have large vehicles to collect and transport the bikes to the container in Wallingford, which is slated to set sail to Haiti later this month.

“We really need some people who might have some spare time and willingness to help us out,” says Fowler, “Lots of hands will make short work of this.” Adding, “I think we are carrying on with Bikes for Kids the way Chuck would have wanted us to.”

This past holiday season, the first since Graeb’s passing, the organization gave away seven bikes. Fowler hopes to keep this going and is currently trying to round up all the volunteers Graeb had enlisted over the years.

“Many of us have never met, so we are still trying to get everyone together who wants to be a part of this,” says Fowler, who not only is working to get bikes to Haiti, as well as needy kids in Connecticut, but also wants to try to complete one of Graeb’s last hopes of having Christmas in July.

“This past summer Chuck and I were going to try and pull off a Christmas in July with our “pickle jar” money from scrap metal that we bring to the dump. We wanted to give a couple of families all the fixings for a holiday feast in the middle of summer. We talked about it, but unfortunately we never got to do it. This is something I know Chuck really wanted to do and hopefully this year we can.”

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