In the late 1990s, Paul Demers and Joanne Heidkamp’s 12-year-old son, Stephan, spotted an intriguing article in a mountain bike magazine. A non-profit organization collected old bicycles in the United States and sent them overseas to people in developing countries.
“He drew his attention to the fact that bicycles were provided for health workers, teachers [and] midwives who could cycle to twice as many villages as they could on foot,” Heidkamp said.
The parents were also intrigued. Finding no existing Vermont chapter of Pedals for progress, Heidkamp and Demers joined a group of returned Peace Corps volunteers to create their own. In 1999 they held their first collection event and have held one every year since, collecting 4,200 bikes and over 600 sewing machines – another staple – along the way. The equipment is sent to countries in Africa, Central America, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands and Eastern Europe.
“Each project has just the most heartwarming/heartbreaking stories of how these bikes and sewing machines are changing people’s lives,” Heidkamp said.
She recalled a teacher in Albania who realized that young women graduating from her high school went to Italy with the intention of working as nannies or waitresses. In reality, the girls were lured into sex trafficking, Heidkamp said.
“And so she asked for sewing machines and set up a sewing workshop so that the women could stay in the village and make curtains, make aprons, make tote bags, make clothes,” Heidkamp said. . “It created jobs that kept people in the community.”
This year’s transport is likely headed to Guatemala, Heidkamp said. And the group has two collection points: at National Life in Montpelier from 3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday, September 24, and at Burton’s flagship store in Burlington’s South End the following day from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. a bicycle or sewing machine is asked to contribute $15, which pays part of the fare to send the equipment across the ocean in a shipping container.
“Sometimes people come and donate a bike and then stay to help load the bikes,” Heidkamp said. “Once you’re there and see the truck loading up, it’s very compelling.”