Fixer uppers: Used bike project to benefit Caribbean island

A report by Scott Merzbach for the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Hundreds of donated, discarded and abandoned bicycles stacked inside a large shipping container behind the Florence Community Center over Labor Day weekend will soon be making an Atlantic Ocean voyage to Trinidad.

After twice spending weeks volunteering on a rural farm, growing crops like hot peppers and wild yam, Ruthy Woodring of Florence saw firsthand how getting more bicycles to the island nation known as Trinidad and Tobago could better the lives of families.

“It’s transportation, it’s health, and it’s an economic benefit to have people making a living by fixing bikes,” Woodring says of what she has dubbed the Trinidad Bicycles Osmosis Project.

The project began in spring 2019 when Woodring got back from Moruga, a region on the south coast of Trinidad where she had used a machete as a primary farming implement during the international work exchange Workaway program.  TOP ARTICLES1/5READ MOREIsles East finals-bound after 4-0 rompover Flyers in Game 7

Woodring, a co-founder of the Pedal People in Northampton, said the bicycles aren’t perfect, but are ideal for her project. Some have broken brake pads or are missing the brake set altogether. Many have flat tires, and others have frozen seat posts so they can no longer be adjusted up or down to meet the size of the rider.

“Most of the bikes have all their parts, they just need a little labor,” Woodring said.

That will come when the shipping container arrives around Oct. 1. “I have an import partner there who will store them and fix them up and then sell them at affordable prices,” Woodring said.

The bicycles have been collected since May 2019 and have arrived in a number of ways, such as being left in downtown Northampton, or spared just before being turned into scrap metal.

“Hey, can I have that?” Woodring recalled shouting when seeing bicycles about to be thrown out.

Woodring also organized a formal bike drive at Smith Vocational and Agricultural School last November and worked with officials at Mount Holyoke and Amherst colleges to obtain some bicycles not taken home by students. However, on the University of Massachusetts campus last year, she got into trouble with police for unauthorized removal of bicycles after students took off for the summer.

In addition, she attended a bicycle auction by Springfield Police, bidding $888 to buy 65 bicycles, which came at the same time she was fending off the larceny charges from UMass, she said.

Since she obtained the bicycles, they have been kept with a friend in Holyoke, who allowed her to store 160 of them. Another 140 bicycles were stored in the basement of friend Paige Bridgens, and another 70 made it to a barn off Sylvester Road.

Though the project was long planned, until late August Woodring had no idea where she would be able to fill the shipping container, learning that it was impossible to park it on a residential street. It was fortuitous, then, that while discussing her project on a Valley Free Radio program, Robert Gougeon, who owns Florence Towing and the community center building where the station’s studio is, was willing to have it parked at the back of the lot, a perfect spot due to the space it provided and the shade.

About 30 volunteers have helped her over the course of three days to get the bicycles into the 40-foot-long Mediterranean Shipping Co. cargo vessel.

As each item is loaded, a careful inventory is taken. For the bicycles, seats, which could be damaged in transit, are removed, as are the pedals, which could get hung up.

For Stan Pollack, who dropped off a trailer filled with bicycles that came from the Bike Lab on Northern Avenue, Woodring’s project is ideal.

“It amazes me how we’re such a throwaway society,” Pollack said, before heading out to get more bicycles.

Chase Walker and Carson Smith met Woodring on the farm in Trinidad and came up from Georgia to participate in the final step.

“She said she needed help, and here we are,” said Walker, who is from Atlanta.

Walker said a best friend at the farm biked all the time, illustrating that the bicycles will be put to great use.

Smith, of Marietta, Georgia, said that in her three months at the farm, she saw small children riding bicycles that were too big for them.

“It will be really awesome. People will enjoy these bicycles,” Smith said.

Smith said the generosity locally is remarkable.“It’s really inspiring to see the community give to this,” Smith said.

Jon Liebman of Northampton said he had talked to Woodring for months about the project and assisted in breaking down the bicycles and packing them. “People need bikes around the world,” Liebman said.

Woodring said she finds it unfortunate that American culture doesn’t value repairing bicycles.

“If I spend five hours working on a bike, this bike can last me 15 to 20 more years,” she said.

In addition to the bicycles, household goods, such as a refrigerator, washing machine and mattresses, are being put into the shipping container.

A tractor-trailer truck will drive it to the port of Boston where it will be loaded onto the RONIT container ship. Once docked in Trinidad, her import partner 15 minutes from the farm will manage the distribution of the items. She hopes to use sales of bikes there as seed money, and reimbursement, for the next shipping container that will go out.

Woodring said there are significant costs to the project, including $1,200 to get to Boston, and possibly more than $10,000 to complete the mission. While she did a GoFundMe fundraiser, she is covering a sizable portion of the project from an inheritance after paying off her house mortgage, she said.

She also got assistance from the Bikes Not Bombs organization.

“I’m super grateful for their support. People have donated a lot of bikes,” Woodring said.

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