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Empowering Africans with Ottawa's unused bikes

<p>To the average Ottawa resident, a bicycle is a simple transport tool or used for recreation — but for someone living in Namibia, a bike can change a life.</p>

To the average Ottawa resident, a bicycle is a simple transport tool or used for recreation.

But for someone living in Namibia — a rural area of northern Africa marred by poverty and HIV — a bike can change a life.

For the past three years, Ottawa residents and friends Seb Oran and Sandra Gattola have been connecting these two worlds, putting unused bikes from the National Capital Region to good use in a third-world country.

Over the weekend, Bicycles for Humanity (B4H) — a 100 per cent volunteer-run grassroots organization — collected more than 400 bicycles in a drive that will help improve access to health care, education, food, water and employment.

Unused bicycles in garages or basements can make an incredible difference to those in need of transportation, said Oran, who cofounded the Ottawa chapter of B4H — today one of 20 across North America — with Gattola in 2007.

"Just a simple bicycle — something we use for recreation purposes here — is an empowerment tool there," Oran said.

"It's great that an organization would make the most of bikes that would otherwise end up in landfills," said B4H volunteer Martin Sullivan.

Barrhaven resident Ron Radbourne salvaged bikes that had been tossed with the neighbours' trash. He fixed them up then donated them to the organization.

"It's great someone can use them," he said. "We've got so much in this country that it's great we can help."

The donated bicycles are shipped to Namibia, where the Bicycling Empowerment Network will distribute them.

While some of the bikes go to health care workers to help them travel to meet patients, others to go to orphaned youth to help them attend school. The rest are fixed up and sold, with the profits going to House of Love, a community-based organization for orphaned and vulnerable children.

"It greatly increases their livelihood and productivity," said Oran.

Last year, the women traveled to Namibia to see the result of their work.

While Oran spends 20 hours a week, seven months a year working on the project, seeing the difference it makes in someone's life makes it worth her while.

"When you see how it improves one human's life... I don't think there's anything more powerful with that, she said.

"The most rewarding part is seeing the impact at the other end," said Gattola, "but also meeting all the wonderful people that live right here in the city. Sometimes, in the day-to-day, you get cynical, but so many wonderful people come out of the woodwork."

The Ottawa chapter will surpass 1,300 bikes collected this month and Gattola said they have no intention of stopping.

"You really realize that nobody is too small to make a difference," Oran said. "By doing something as simple as donating a bicycle, you can make a difference."

 
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