Cycling for Dollars

Bike-Aid

Picture 160 people bicycling together up First Ave. in New York toward the United Nations building, their final destination after a 3600-mile cross-country trip to raise money to fight world hunger. Picture the homeless people on the street, cheering for the cyclists and their efforts to reduce human suffering even a little.

That was how the participants in the 1987 Bike-Aid ride ended their nine-week trip. Although many of the 287 people who participated in the rides over the last three summers were not serious cyclists, they rode 80 miles a day as they crossed the country to raise money for grassroots projects to prevent hunger in the United States and abroad.

Sponsored by the Overseas Development Network (ODN), Bike-Aid has the dual purpose of raising funds for ODN self-help development projects and spreading awareness about the problems of world hunger, says Benjamin R. Kahrl '89, who biked a 3600-mile route from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., last summer. About 85 percent of the money raised goes directly to the people in developing countries for self-help projects, and 15 percent goes to the same type of grassroots projects, such as survival centers and irrigation systems, in the United States.

Two brothers from Bangladesh--then students at Harvard and Stanford respectively--founded ODN on the two campuses in 1983, and there are currently 63 chapters on college campuses nationwide. Bike-Aid, which started in 1986 and absorbed Harvard Cyclists Fighting Hunger in 1987, is one of four major ODN programs which raise awareness about and help combat the problem of global poverty and injustice.

The money that is raised from the Bike-Aid trip each year goes immediately to fund grassroots, self-help projects in the United States and abroad, says Yeewoo Guo, regional coordinator for Asian programs at the ODN regional office in Cambridge. Bike-Aid has raised $390,000 over the past three years.

ODN raises its overhead separately, mostly through corporate donations, so that "every penny raised [through the four programs] goes to the projects, most of which are small grants of grassroots money such as $500 for a well in Bolivia which will service a community of 500 for generations," says William C. Parsons '89, a leader on the 1987 San Francisco trip.

Between signing up for the ride--recruiting has already started for next summer's trips--and arriving at the starting point, each rider is responsible for raising as much money as possible from sponsors, says Matthew A. Collins '89, who was on the San Francisco trip last summer. "The goal amount is a dollar a mile, or $3600, but any amount is accepted. Because the main idea of the trip is charity, most people were really excited to raise a lot of money," he says.

In addition to raising money for ODN, the bikers must pay their own living expenses during the trip and transportation to the start and/or home from the finish.

Kahrl says that the western routes, which begin from Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and San Francisco, are 3600-mile, nine-week trips with 11 rest days. There is also a shorter southern route which begins from Austin, Tex., almost a month after the other routes. All trips end in Washington, D.C., in the middle of August. In 1987, after the trips met in Washington, all the riders continued to New York together, but that practice was discontinued.

Last year, ODN decided to limit the size of each trip--there were four last year--to 20 or fewer riders for logistical purposes. The general age range on the trips is 15-28 years old, although there are 60-year olds who participate, Collins says. Also there are usually more female than male riders, says Guo, one of the leaders on the San Francisco trip last summer.

Each group has both a female and a male leader, but the choice has nothing to do with biking experience, Collins says. "The leaders are chosen based on knowledge of the program. It isn't a leader-oriented trip--it is more like a community."

For example, Guo says that prior to the trip, he had absolutely no experience riding a bicycle. "I had only ridden a three-speed bike in Singapore when I was young, and I had to learn from scratch," he says. Guo became involved with Bike-Aid when he was asked to develop an ODN package to educate the riders about the issues. "After writing the package and thinking so much about what it meant, I decided I had to go on the ride to see how the knowledge was actually used," he says.

Each trip has a three-day orientation session in the starting city, and the group's leaders explain the developmental issues and exactly what the fundraising is for, explains Lisa M. Faber '90, who rode the Seattle route last summer. The leaders also set up in advance a rotating schedule for chores along the way. "There are work groups of four people, and they rotate chores such as cooking, and cleaning and packing the vans," Faber says. She adds that once the trip gets underway, everyone is equal.

Parsons agrees that the leaders are "in name only," but he explains that "someone has to be held responsible for keeping people healthy and happy and getting them from one place to another."

Although Parsons says that there are rarely discipline problems on the trips, he says that "there are certain decisions that can't be made democratically." If someone was repeatedly involved with drug use or behaved in a way that reflected poorly on the group, the leaders would ask the biker to leave the trip, he says.