Bike event in Columbia Falls looks to help pedal program in Central America

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This woman on a bike-powered farm machine is one of many who have increased their income thanks to Maya Pedal. (Dave Renfrow photo)

What if you could reduce the cost of border security, improve the lives of low-income families, and send kids to school in developing countries - just by donating your old bicycle?

Maya Pedal helps you do just that.

Maya Pedal is a non-governmental organization that makes machines from used bicycles. President and CEO Mario Juarez started Maya Pedal about 20 years ago, right after the Guatemalan Civil War. At the beginning, the project partnered with MIT for designs, and has consistently collaborated with Rotary Clubs International. Rotary Club has been instrumental in helping worldwide communities get water, which, aside from fulfilling a basic human need, allows coffee-growing families to rinse their beans and get them certified organic. Maya Pedal has offices in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico.

“Bicimaquinas,” or bicycle machines, can pump water, wash clothes, crush nuts, depulp coffee beans, cob corn, mill grain, blend plant-based shampoos and soaps, and make nutritious smoothies. The machines are powerful, pumping water about 50 feet from underground into above-ground tanks, and they can be pedaled and repaired by men, women, or children. The idea is simply to make farm work faster and more efficient, which boosts family income.

“It’s appropriate technology,” Columbia Falls resident and Maya Pedal volunteer Dave Renfrow explained recently.

The machines are designed to help with subsistence agriculture in areas where the government never brought electricity to communities.

“Those are the things I like,” Renfrow said. “The longevity, the frugality. Raising the income of a farm family helps get the little girls in school for 2.8 years of their life; the boys go 3.8 years.”

Renfrow said Central American families often subsist on $6 a day, and many children make the extremely dangerous trip to the Mexico-U.S. border to find more work. He estimates that it costs over $12,000 to return each child to his or her family. Donating bikes to Maya Pedal to improve farm life and save children from this danger just makes sense, no matter what your politics are, he notes.

Not only do the bicycle-powered machines increase income, but they provide a direct opportunity for better health. Many Central American children have stunted growth from poor nutrition. They typically eat only corn tortillas at every meal because the Central American Free Trade Agreement made it impossible for them to export their corn. To combat this problem, families are encouraged to make smoothies using their bike blenders, which gets more essential vitamins and minerals into the kids’ diet.

“So many problems are beyond us, but getting a family a bicycle for a machine is something we can do,” Renfrow said.

Renfrow is a bicycle tourist who got involved with Maya Pedal about three years ago during his first bike tour of Latin America. He’s returned twice for other tours and to visit the friends he’s made. He advocates “voluntourism” - visiting an area for hiking, sightseeing at World Heritage Sites, or cycling, but taking advantage of local volunteer opportunities while there. Among his favorite cycling memories was biking at up to 14,000 feet around a volcano in Ecuador. He’s also toured from Barcelona to Paris through the Pyrenees.

“There’s nothing particularly novel about what I do, but I love it,” he said. “It’s the most authentic way to travel.”

Reluctant to discuss his own accomplishments, Renfrow was enthusiastic about an upcoming local event to support Maya Pedal.

On Friday, Aug. 18, at the opening of Travis Feller’s new bike shop behind Three Forks Grille in Columbia Falls, the public is invited to a celebration and fundraiser. Feller’s Over the Mountain bike shop will be the official year-round collection site for bikes shipped to Maya Pedal yearly.

“Everybody has bikes. We can keep them out of the landfills and get them into the hands of the people,” Renfrow said.

The event will take place from 4:30 to 6 p.m. and is also sponsored by Berube Physical Therapy and Shakti Foods. The latter will be making blender-bike smoothies and letting attendees “pedal like a Mayan” to see how the bicimaquinas work.

Columbia Falls graduate Ada Brooks will also be at the event to speak about her “life-changing” experience working for Maya Pedal.

“People don’t have to bring a bike (to attend), but they should. And they should buy food,” Renfrow added.

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