Bike drive for seasonal workers exceeds expectations

·6 min read

Migrant Workers outreach co-ordinator Donna Brown had tears in her eyes as more than 75 bikes were donated to the Bikes for Farmworkers organization.

“I figured we’d get 15 or 20 total. But we got 40 in the first hour,” Bikes for Farmworkers volunteer Ken Eden said as he loaded some 15 bikes onto his trailer with the help of fellow volunteer David Cox.

The community turnout on Oct. 30 was overwhelming for Brown.

“I’m elated. It’s just so awesome to see the support from the community,” Brown said as she wiped tears from her cheeks.

Brown thanked the generosity of Niagara-on-the-Lake's residents but noted support wasn’t only from within the municipality.

“There was a couple that drove down from Toronto with some bike parts for us,” she said.

“That people care about what the migrant workers do and that they’re always willing to support us, that’s just so awesome to know.”

Brown works with Gateway Community Church as its migrant workers outreach co-ordinator. The church has partnered with Bikes for Farmworkers since 2019.

“We wanted to work with a trustworthy organization to expand our ministry to migrant workers,” said pastor Michelle Mercer.

Since the volunteers do all the heavy lifting with the bikes, Mercer said the church has lent its administrative powers to help with things like insurance.

Bikes for Farmworkers was started in 2016 by Terry Weiner and Mark Gaudet to ensure seasonal workers in Niagara have access to safe and secure transportation.

The team will take a bike in any state and either totally restore it or strip it for useful parts. Once a bike is repaired they sell it for a nominal fee of $20, which also includes any service and repairs the bike may need in the future.

The team members are dedicated to what they do. Gaudet said they have received bikes worth more than $1,000, which they’ve turned around and sold for $20, as their mandate specifies.

The organization has been hard at work these last few years as well. Since 2016, some 1,932 bikes have been sold to seasonal workers.

That number would be even higher if it wasn’t for the pandemic.

“It was a little bit light this year because of COVID,” Cox said.

“People weren’t giving up their bikes like they normally would.”

In 2019, Bikes for Farmworkers repaired 331 new bikes. That number barely passed 200 this year.

But thanks to drives like the one held on Saturday the organization is hoping to see the numbers grow again next year, Weiner said.

For Gaudet, volunteering his time to help Niagara’s seasonal workers is an extension of realizing those workers are one of the backbones of NOTL’s community.

“If it wasn’t for the migrant workers, if it wasn’t for the wine industry, the soft fruit industry and the Shaw we would just be another small town,” Gaudet said in an interview at the charities headquarters in the old Virgil school on Four Mile Creek.

“Some of the (seasonal workers) are here in February working in the nurseries and they stay here until December. They’re away from their families for a long time.”

Brown shared this sentiment, noting that for many of Niagara’s seasonal workers, NOTL is a more permanent home than their home countries where their families live.

“The food on our tables is not just from guys coming here for a couple of months. It’s guys who are basically giving up everything so they can come here for eight months to work and provide for their families,” Brown said.

“If they’re gonna do that for our industry the least we can do is help them out with transportation,” Gaudet said.

He noted Bikes for Farmworkers isn’t just a way to help farmworkers but a project that unites and strengthens NOTL’s entire community.

“There’s the farmworkers, the farmers, the church groups, the volunteers and the citizens donating bikes. So, we’re just kind of drawing links to try and help these guys,” Gaudet said.

“You’ve got to realize that when you’re a part of a community that you’ve got to help everyone in that community.”

Excess bikes are shared with similar programs in Niagara Falls and St. Catharines, Gaudet said. The Bikes for Farmworkers team members also volunteer their time to help any similar upstart group by sharing the model that has been successful for them and helping teach proper bike repair skills.

Seasonal workers need not fear that the bikes they buy might fall apart. Gaudet is an avid biker and cycling enthusiast and Weiner is a retired aerospace engineer.

Weiner ensures that all bikes pass a 50-point safety checklist and are double-checked by a separate volunteer after repairs.

“That’s the environment I came from. Nothing happens without at least 10 sets of eyeballs on it,” he said.

The volunteers have also repaired bikes for Syrian immigrants and Gaudet was working on repairing a children’s bicycle for a friend who wanted to gift it as a Christmas present.

A common safety concern for seasonal workers in the area is visibility and the lack of sidewalks and shoulders on roads in the rural areas of town. Workers out walking or biking at night are at risk of getting hit by cars in the low-visibility environment.

Brown is the chair of the Caribbean Workers Outreach Program, an organization founded 30 years ago in reaction to a tragedy.

“A farmworker got hit on his bike and he died. So, this is very dear to my heart,” she said.

Weiner and Gaudet have taken that into consideration when refurbishing bikes. They used to attach operational lights on the bikes but noticed the workers weren’t always turning them on once it got dark or replacing the batteries.

So now each bike comes equipped with reflective safety tape that is nigh impossible to remove.

“We put it on the front, the back and the sides so that no matter what angle a car is coming from they can see the bike,” Weiner said.

Beyond helping out an integral part of NOTL’s community, the volunteers are helping themselves as well.

The entire group consists of retirees who love getting together for the company and the mental exercise of repairing the bikes.

Gaudet said having that community and friendship is great but is made better because everyone is doing something worthwhile with their time and “not sitting around Tim Hortons talking.”

“We are getting things done.”

Evan Saunders, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report

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