By Joe Kurmaskie and Shannon Johnson — Nine-year-old Dylan knew he loved riding bikes so much that he talked his mom into signing him up for one of the weeklong bike camps in the Portland, Oregon area organized by WashCo Bikes. Dana didn’t have enough disposable income to cover all the camp fees AND get her son a new bike. The one he had was two sizes too small and still had training wheels on it. Dylan was using the wrong equipment which led to him lose confidence in his riding abilities.
The first thing camp instructors did was give him a refurbished Trek bike from a partner program FB4KPortland.org. FB4kidz is a branch of a national organization started in Minnesota by Terry Esau with a mission to collect bikes in cities on one day, refurbish them for free distribution. They partner with other nonprofits like WashCo Bikes which has an army of volunteers and mechanics for refurbishing and a network to get bikes to kids like Dylan.
On the second morning of camp Dylan was keeping up with his camp mates. By Friday, during the family ride with parents and friends, Dylan’s mom was amazed at the change. As the camp ended, she asked where Dylan should leave the loaner bike. We saw the misunderstanding and approached Dylan. “Do you like this bike?” we asked. Dylan put his hand on the bar grip as if saying goodbye to a friend, “It’s the only bike for me!” he replied. We let go of it. “That’s good, because it’s yours.”
Dylan’s smile could have powered a city. His Mom put her hands to her heart and offered a heartfelt parental nod.
Fast-forward a season — WashCo Bikes and FB4Kidz gets requests from those in need for bicycles on a daily basis. We try to get wheels under as many folks as possible. In 2021 we gave away over 2000 bike packages, which include a light, lock, helmet, bicycle, and safety programming.
When BikePortland.com bicycle journalist and advocate Shannon Johnson came to our board meeting with a proposal asking if we could provide a few bikes to recently arrived Afghan refugees we decided to step up in a more meaningful way.
Here’s an account of her experience that first appeared on BikePortland.com and offered with permission:
This past Saturday, baby Felix and I had a blast at the first bike giveaway event in an exciting new partnership between WashCo Bikes and Lutheran Community Services Northwest. WashCo is committed to getting over a hundred bike packages (with lock, light, and helmet) to Afghan refugees settling in Washington County and the Portland metro area. This exciting event welcomed dozens of LCSNW’s refugee clients and got them set up on bicycles.
It was a joy to watch as WashCo’s executive director, Joe Kurmaskie, ran from person to person, fitting helmets, raising, and lowering bike seats, handing out lights and locks and personally writing dozens of vouchers for refugees to pick up bikes at WashCo’s Hillsboro shop. There was a pre-arranged list of refugees due to get bicycles, but no client was turned away.
“We’re going to get you a bicycle!” was Kurmaskie’s repeated enthusiastic refrain. Despite language differences, the abundant smiles (see below) needed no translation.
Baby Felix played his own little part in the lead-up to this event because it was sometime during the sleepless-late-night-nursing-phone-scrolling marathons that his Mama discovered that hundreds of Afghan refugees had been sent to Portland for resettlement after fleeing the Taliban. (Resettlement agencies are now preparing for an influx of refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine.)
Tired of merely watching the news and crying into her morning cup of coffee, Felix’s Mama reached out to Lutheran Community Services Northwest to ask: “Would bicycles help?”
“Yes!” was the enthusiastic response.
“Bikes are a first form of transportation for clients,” explained a case manager. Some refugees don’t speak English. Public transit can be confusing and difficult to navigate, especially with limited English skills. Many clients live a long walk to bus stops and job opportunities. They don’t arrive with an American driver’s license, or a vehicle. But, like all of us, they need a reliable way to get around.
Case workers hear many stories of refugee transportation needs and say that a bicycle can be a huge help. As an example, they told me about a client who got off work at 1:00 am, then had trouble with his bus pass. Unable to speak English, and not knowing what to do, he simply walked home–five hours! If only he had a bicycle … (or free public transit! Maybe someday.)
In any case, it’s clear bicycles are a great form of mobility for newly arrived refugees. As cycling advocates know well, bikes provide transit, independence, and greater access to work opportunities. They shorten pedestrian commute times. They provide exercise and recreation. And they are a terrific way to explore and integrate into one’s new community, especially in bike-friendly Portland.
Properly motivated, Felix and I contacted my beloved local bike shop and non-profit, WashCo Bikes, to beg for some bicycles for new refugees. I had a carefully prepared speech, but I didn’t even get to finish it before Kurmaskie interrupted, “Let me just stop you right there, because this is what we do. This is our mission. We’ll make this happen. No quid pro quos. We’ll do it.”
Wow, has Kurmaskie and WashCo made good on that promise! They have other bike giveaway events already planned for refugees with LCSNW, and if they go anything like this one, WashCo will be making sure hundreds of our newest neighbors have the bicycles they need to get them where they need to go, and Baby Felix and I are excited to be along for the adventure.
This is another turn in the road of our family biking journey–and Felix hasn’t even taken his first ride yet! That’s coming soon, but in the meantime, we are thrilled to celebrate WashCo Bikes, Lutheran Community Services Northwest, and every new refugee who just received a warm welcome into the Portland area biking community.
If you want to support WashCo’s work to get bicycles to refugees and in-need community members, please consider contributing or donating a used bicycle. See washcobikes.org
Shannon Johnson is a journalist and advocate who writes for BikePortland.com