Wheels 4 Life have been changing lives with bikes since 2006 and have just ticked over 13,000 bikes. We talk to Carmen Rey about where it all started.
Wheels 4 Life is a charity set up by Hans and Carmen Rey, to give bikes to those who have no other means of transport in some of the poorest parts of the World. Recently, Wheels 4 Life ticked over 13,000 bikes donated worldwide.
Pete caught up with Carmen Rey to find out how it all started and the plan going forward.
How did Wheels 4 Life come about?
Wheels 4 Life came about after a lot of wondering, talking and brainstorming on how we could do something positive to change people’s lives for the better. The obvious answer was to do it with bicycles; we believed that by providing sustainable transportation we could do exactly that.
Since bicycles have been a big part of Hans’ life, it seemed like a natural synergy to pay it forward with the gift of bikes.
Those talks in 2005 lead to Wheels 4 Life funding its first project in 2006.
Who makes up Wheels 4 Life and what do they do?
Wheels 4 Life is made up of our board, which besides Hans and I includes Scott Robinson, Bryan Cole, Mark Peterman and Michelle Veyna.
Although the day to day running of the charity is managed by Hans and myself, our board gives support in a number of ways. This includes future planning, advice, spreading the word and help with the all important fundraisers.
Just as we can’t provide bicycles without donations, we can’t distribute them without project managers in the field. The projects, selection, running them, ensuring I receive receipts, project reports, photos, thank you letters for donors is down to me. I rely utterly on our voluntary project leaders located in 32 different countries around the world.
There is a huge amount of work involved when implementing a project; our volunteers have a huge undertaking, more of that further on in the interview.
Was it an obvious choice to supply bikes through Wheels 4 Life?
To provide bicycles seemed the most obvious thing to do if we wanted to change lives. Bikes are a massive part of our lives, not only our work, but also one of our hobbies, so many of our wonderful friends have come via the bike lane and of course thanks to the bicycle we have been able travel and see first hand the very real need for them throughout the developing world.
Although bicycles are a vehicle for fun, exercise, adrenaline and a greener way to get from A to B, for many people globally a bicycle is as unaffordable as a Ferrari would be to us. Yet something so simple, so relatively cheap can literally save lives or at the very least, change them so positively.
When you consider that one bicycle can take four children to school, or carry four times the load of a farmers produce, allow healthcare workers to visit four times the amount of remotely located patients, can travel four times the distance and four times faster, it becomes pretty clear that a bicycle is one of the most valuable gifts we can give people who have no access to transportation.
Do you see the pattern in the number four? For us, Wheels 4 Life literally means what the title says.
What did you have to do to get the first bikes into people’s hands?
At the very beginning we really didn’t have much of an idea about how to select recipients or how to get the bicycles to them. Originally we worked with a few other charities and channelled our bicycles through them. But we are talking about under a hundred bikes.
We decided that this method was really not the direction we wanted to go, but it was a good learning curve. Then through a friend of ours we were introduced to the UNDP (United Nations Development Fund). This changed everything. The projects they supported were all community development projects like the ones we imagined we would support and they were all over the world, all developing countries.
The beauty was that these projects and project leaders had already been seriously vetted by the UNDP and had successfully administered the funding that they had been provided with. These grants were for all kinds of life changing things, digging of water wells, building schools, health centres, fisheries, coffee farming etc. UNDP gave us a list of the Project Leaders that they could thoroughly recommend.
This is how I got the first bikes into the hands of the first group of people that I knew for sure needed them, would look after them, would make the best use of them. The first project leader was a man named Abubaker Ntambi, he lives in Uganda and his organisation is called CIDAR (Community Initiatives for Development and Action Research). We first gave his community 20 bikes in 2006; his organisation has now distributed over 1000 Wheels 4 Life bicycles.
How did you go about sourcing locally-produced bikes?
Part of the job of a project leader is to source a bicycle wholesaler in a town or city not too far away. They then have to negotiate hard on our behalf for the best price possible for the bikes. We ask them to make it clear that potentially Wheels 4 Life could be a very good customer in the future.
We recommend that the wholesaler throw in the cost of the assembly and transportation, plus a mechanic to be on hand to fine-tune the bikes on the days of distribution. Our PLs have been rather successful over the years, if we fund 50 bicycles it is usual that they manage to secure an extra 3 or 4 bikes with no charge into the purchase.
It is important to us to purchase the bikes locally, this ensures that we save on transportation costs and import duties, we fuel the local economy and the recipients can source spare parts cheaply and easily. The latter is so important, there is no point donating a bicycle if a person can’t repair it and the bike sits there utterly inanimate, or in a landfill.
How do you decide where in the World people best need bikes?
Deciding on where in the World people most need bikes is dependant on a number of factors. The terrain for example, not all places are conducive to riding a bike. As much as we want to help out after a natural disaster, this is not always pragmatic if for example the area is flooded with water and/or more emergency supplies have been delivered than there are legitimate people to handle them.
Mostly we decide because someone applies to us for a bicycle grant and they plead their case well, or a person highly recommends a person, community or organisation that could greatly benefit from our help. Then I start to ask a lot of questions, vet the applicant and the org.
The first time we work with a new person heading up a community-based programme, we start small, perhaps 10 or 20 bikes. If this goes accordingly, we invite them to apply for more bicycles. From one bike, it can snowball, in a positive way.
How much red tape is involved in getting bikes on the ground at your chosen location?
The red tape is usually mostly the red tape I create myself. Since we purchase the bicycles locally, we don’t have to deal with cross border customs revenue or corruption. We do of course have compliancy in the U.S and Europe both with our 501(c) 3 status and the international banking laws. As much as I utterly dislike doing the accounts and all the paperwork “stuff”, it is essential to keep on top of this, make sure we are following the rules exactly and keep up to date.
The red tape of my own creation is to do with the many questions I ask the applicants. They must provide me with an official photo ID, documentation related to their organisation, references, address, phone number, date of birth etc. The process from application to acceptance (if they are accepted) is a minimum of 6 months, more likely 12 months. We ask them to sign a contract and use a “safe word” with all communication with me.
Once they have been cleared, we start with a funding only a few bicycles, this since we wire the grant funding to the approved project leader and trust needs to be built. Once the person is in receipt of their grant, they have to notify me and then send me a receipt for the bikes they purchase. Then when the bicycles are distributed I require photos of the bikes in a group and with the new owners.
Most importantly a report is provided to us, this explains the project, the people that will receive bikes, why they need transportation and how lives will benefit. There is also a list of names of the recipients, age, job, school or health centre and the number of their bike.
All bikes are numbered to more easily identify them and make it harder for someone to steal one, it also aids with accountability. Then lastly we ask for a thank you letter addressed to the person or persons that made the project possible through donations.
Once you’ve found a local organisation how fast can you get bikes to people?
Once a project has been approved and funding sent it takes approximately 4 to 5 weeks for people to receive their bikes. It can take a lot longer, extreme weather often has an impact, certain times of the year flash floods make the roads impassable, internet is often down, sickness, so many of my project leaders have been affected by Malaria or water-borne malaises.
Then the whole process itself is time intensive, from going to the city (which can take a day), to negotiating, waiting for the bikes to arrive at the wholesalers, get built and engraved with numbers, then transported to the town or village where distribution will take place.
We encourage holding a ceremony and inviting the recipients to attend to pick up their bike. We also invite the local chiefs, the police and the local government minister. This helps the project leader to have some backing from the local “Big Wigs”, it legitimises she or he and it gives Wheels 4 Life some local support and clout.
Is it difficult sometimes to get across to people how much difference wheels can make to a person’s life?
Sometimes it is hard to make people imagine the bicycle as a tool and not a toy. Until you witness it, it is not as simple as it sounds to fully understand just how much of a life changing work tool a bicycle can be.
Picture how a child can take themselves and siblings on one bike to school, faster and safer. At the same time they can transport large empty water containers to the government tap situated at the school and cycle home with the multi gallon containers full of water strapped to their bike. Not walking and carrying them, in extreme heat, for miles.
How important is it for you to visit locations?
It is important to visit the locations sometimes. We cannot visit them all; this would take too much time and be too expensive. Since we fund any Wheels 4 Life associated travel ourselves and we need to do our day jobs in order to be able to afford to give so much time to the charity, we have to be pragmatic.
Because of this we really do rely on our senior Project Leaders in the field and on friends and associates that visit our projects when on their own travels. When Hans does an adventure, he tries as much as possible to tie in a Wheels 4 Life project, as he did when he rode Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro back to back with Danny MacAskill and Gerhard Czerner in 2016. The riders and crew visited a project we had personally implemented in 2013 and oversaw a follow up project with another 50 bikes in Kenya.
Do you have a favourite story since starting the Wheels 4 Life?
There are a few favourite stories; it is a little hard to pick one. I will let you decide.
Editor’s note: We couldn’t chose, they’re all below.
A few years ago we started providing ambulance bicycles equipped with a full trailer on wheels and a sun-screening canopy. Literally on the day that these bikes were awarded to a health centre remotely located and yet servicing 40 small settlements, our ambulance saved lives.
A pregnant woman was found unconscious on the side of a narrow side road, help was sought at the clinic and an ambulance bike was dispatched. They took the lady to the nearest town hospital, turns out that she had malaria. The lady survived and so did her unborn child.
Then there is Mark; Mark was a secondary school student that showed academic promise, but his family could not afford the school fees for him to complete this level of education (around £50 PA). Mark was recommended to us by of one of our project leaders in northern Uganda as a worthy recipient of a bicycle.
With his bike he took himself to work for a year as a builder’s labourer, fetching water that was used for mixing cement and using his bike to transport it. After a year he had saved enough money to finish his secondary education. He then went on to receive a scholarship to study at university. Mark is now a doctor. This is what the charity is about, giving people a chance of realising their potential, or being able to support their family or even saving lives.
Then there is one of our projects in Rwanda. Let us just say that they were not too enthusiastic about women riding bikes. We were happy to provide bicycles for teachers and students on one condition; women and girls must have access to them too. At the end of the day a bicycle helps keep females safer, they can travel to school and back or to and from work quicker and again, safer. If we can change the perception even a little through the bicycles, we are ticking another box.
How do you find motivation when you’re struggling for inspiration?
Without a doubt, our most consistent and committed, enduring and heartfelt supporters are the Walworth Family. Their son Rory was an avid mountain bike rider, at nineteen his life ended whilst riding his bike. The shattering storm of such a collision impacted so many, family and friends, team mates…. everyone that knew Rory.
Lynn and Simon wrote and said that they had requested donations to Wheels 4 Life rather than flowers at Rory’s funeral.
The donation started with 10 bikes, they all continued to raise money in memory of Rory, walks, rides, Christmas markets. What they achieved in memory of Rory Walworth has been a huge inspiration. The trust that has been given to us to is such an honour. Through Rory a true legacy exists; over a thousand bicycles and they haven’t stopped yet. Below is a photo of 100 Rory bikes waiting to be distributed in Kenya.
Rory’s story is a huge part of the story of Wheels 4 Life.
Rory Walworth, his legacy, his family and friends have granted more bikes than anyone, any company, any fundraiser ever in the history of Wheels 4 Life. They trusted us and I felt a responsibility and very honoured to absolutely make sure that Rory’s bikes reached a place where they were needed the most.
A family living in Hampshire, trusting a charity in California, that supports projects in 32 countries…. that is true belief. This is what inspires me to not be too tired to email and work at 10 pm, to not wonder about how inconsequential we are as small charity, this makes me breath deeply and take a moment to knowledge that what we do is perhaps small, but also meaningful and pure and achieves actual results.
None of which would be possible without our supporters and especially families like the Walworths.
Oh yes there have been disasters. We used to use Western Union most of the time, mostly because it was not so easy for some of our project leaders to have bank accounts. Then one day I sent the grant funding to a project leader that I had complete trust in, we had already worked together several times. The money never reached him. I had to question whether Western Union had a dishonest worker or wonder about the integrity of one of my project leaders.
Turns out that a WU employee intercepted the fund when it hit Uganda withdrawing it thinking that we would not find out whom the culprit was. Thankfully WU did do a full investigation and returned the money and thankfully I had kept my faith in our volunteer.
We also had a case when a person in Kenya hacked into the emails of a nun in Uganda. This person created an email address similar to mine and started communicating with my project leader. This person pretending to be me instructed the Sister to send him some of her grant funding. Her English wasn’t that good and the language nuances were a little lost on her.
We had to set the might of township community pressure on the fraudster in Kenya in order to have the money returned. We made it clear that this district would receive no further bikes unless they aided us in identification and fund retrieval. Since then we use safe words and questions in all communications.
Where next for Wheels 4 Life?
Where next, the world is our oyster, from wherever a good and valid application comes. There are many projects that are ongoing, we will continue to support them as long as there is a genuine need for bicycles and we are always open to new authentic requests.