Writer / Carrie Vittitoe
It is amazing to think how one conversation between two individuals can lead to positive change in a community that helps thousands of people. For Bob Callander, a longtime member of Beargrass Christian Church, a chat about transportation for refugee families in Louisville nearly eight years ago led to a mission that keeps him very busy in his retirement.
Beargrass Christian Church in St. Matthews has long been involved with sponsoring refugee families who come to Louisville. While volunteering at Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM) headquarters, Callander noticed someone handing out TARC passes to refugee families and asked some questions. He learned that TARC was the only form of transportation, besides walking, that most local refugees have.
“They may know how to drive a car, but they can’t get a license and they can’t afford a car,” Callander says. “I thought, ‘We’ve got 1,300 members. We’ll go into the membership, find old bicycles, and give them so they’ll have something.’”
In the summer of 2013, Callander worked with others to locate and fix up bikes to donate to KRM, and he remembers what a big deal it was to get to 50 bikes. Some media coverage for that project, which became the Pedal Power ministry, led to an abundance of bike donations, and an increasing number of volunteers to help ensure the bikes were cleaned up and safe.
“We were able to turn them around really fast, and we got hooked up with the mayor’s Give A Day,” he says.
In that first year of participating in the Give A Day event, Pedal Power accumulated 160 bikes and gave them away all at once.
“Phase Two was to find other organizations that had clients that needed bicycles,” Callander says.
Beargrass Christian Church members contacted and were contacted by a variety of local organizations to see what needs they had, including Louisville Community Ministries, Churchill Downs (which has a large Guatemalan community of workers and their families), St. Vincent de Paul, and Boys & Girls Clubs of Kentuckiana.
“We’ve got about 15 different groups we give bikes to, but it’s always evolving,” Callander says, adding that addiction and prison re-entry programs also have a need for bikes. “We may focus on four or five for a few months until they get their fill, so we shift to other groups. We try to spread it around to whomever needs the bikes.”
Callander says it has always been a balancing act between having enough bikes, having enough volunteers to fix the bikes, and having enough places to donate the bikes.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the situation a bit. Many of the individuals who fix the bikes are aged 60 and above, and most at risk for COVID-19 complications if they become infected. As a result, the labor supply has been reduced.
At the same time, due to shutdowns and the loss of many indoor activities, bicycling has exploded in popularity.
“We started getting calls from the bike shops wanting us to come and pick up the trade-in bicycles,” Callander says. “They were and still are donating those to us.”
Many people have also had more time to clean out their garages, which means Pedal Power has been inundated with donated bikes from individuals and families. Scheller’s Fitness and Cycling, the Louisville Metro Police Department and TARC have been some of the biggest suppliers of used bikes for Pedal Power.
As of late July, Pedal Power has two or three individuals consistently working on the donated bikes. Callander says it is typically cyclists themselves who work on the bikes because they have the proper knowledge. Basic maintenance involves changing tires and tubes, replacing brake pads, lubricating chains, and feeding new cables through housings for brakes.
“For every bike, we go through a triage process and say, ‘Is this one worth fixing up, or is it more valuable to take the brakes off and use them somewhere else?’” Callander says.
Typically, volunteers work on Wednesdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. repairing bikes, although some individuals give more time. Callander has a couple gentlemen with trucks and trailers who can pick up donated bikes or deliver bikes to organizations. The challenge is finding volunteers with expertise who can plug in and start fixing bikes right away, because volunteers don’t have time to teach the skills. Callander says he has never had young cycling enthusiasts help with Pedal Power, perhaps due to lack of time or other responsibilities.
When Callander thinks about the future of the Pedal Power ministry, he has big dreams.
“I’ve talked to other organizations in town, and there is a general consensus that just giving the bikes away isn’t enough,” he says. “We would like people who get the bikes to have some basic skills and know how to fix them. We’d like them to know about bicycle safety and the rules of the road for bicycles. We’d like them to have helmets and locks. All that has been beyond us so far – we’re just cranking them out and giving them away.”
In Callander’s experience, bike and repair knowledge hasn’t been an issue for refugees because they often rode bikes in their home countries, but he sees many local individuals who could benefit from an expanded educational program.
“It seems like long-term, we need to move in that direction,” he says.
Callander wonders whether affiliating with the Norton Sports Health Athletics and Learning Complex at 30th Street and West Muhammad Ali Boulevard might be a good fit for ensuring individuals get bikes they need, and also acquire training for fixing them so they last longer. At this point, he doesn’t know who to turn to in order to begin that conversation, but he says Beargrass Christian Church can provide the volunteers.
In April of 2020, Pedal Power donated its 5,000th bike to the community.
“I don’t see much stopping that other than getting enough [people] to fix them,” Callander says.
The bike ministry is just one of many outreach programs at Beargrass.
“We do a lot of this kind of thing,” Callander says. “I think the church prides itself on the fact that much of our ministry is outside the walls, not necessarily just on Sunday morning.”
For more info on the Pedal Power project, visit beargrass.org/pedal-power.