Driven by a healthy obsession with cycling, Dan Austin and his brother Jared have left their tire tracks on many continents. But it was one trip to Cambodia in 2006 that set their wheels of fate in motion.
At the end of their trip, the Austins decided to donate their bicycles to an orphanage. But a selfless act that brought happiness to two orphans, the Austins realised, left out 86 other children at the orphanage. Thus began their push for donations to provide all the orphans with that same feeling of happiness, and The 88Bikes Foundation was born.
The Foundation's Project FOUR has now brought Dan to Nepal, one of four designated countries to receive 300 bicycles raised through donations. Each of the bicycles represents a one-to-one exchange between a donor and a child. A postcard with the donor's picture is given to each orphan along with the bicycle. In turn, a picture of the child is sent back to the donor. Some of these donors and children have become fast friends - pen pals.
"A bike is like a magical vessel of freedom and fun," says Dan. Clearly he remembers how it feels to own a bicycle for the first time. "That idea of a bike being both useful and making someone happy is something we really feel strongly about."
Project FOUR is providing 125 bicycles to children in the four shelters run by SAATHI, an NGO that works for women's and children's rights. Of the 154 children at the shelters, those not receiving bicycles are mostly toddlers. But a last-minute donation ensured both laughter and tears as five tricycles came into view.
Giving is only half the story for 88Bikes' projects. Local mechanics employed by the organisation provide on-site maintenance for the bicycles. The mechanics will also conduct a workshop to teach the children how to look after their new prized possessions. Children with a talent for the trade will be picked out for apprenticeship programs, giving them an opportunity to make a living.
Beyond that, the children and their bikes are on their own. While 88Bikes and SAATHI are fully committed to providing maintenance support, each child will shoulder the burden of ownership. This responsibility, it is hoped, will prevent such liabilities such as theft and even trading for money.
Sulakshana Rana, programme officer for SAATHI, is confident the children will not sell their bicycles off. She feels the close relationship the children develop with their bicycles acts as a deterrent. "Even in the case of a theft claim, a thorough investigation will be carried out," says Rana. Bicycle shop owners in close proximity to the shelters have been asked to cooperate to prevent such incidents.
Rana is looking forward to seeing the children reap the benefits of Project FOUR's bicycles. "The bicycles will give them more mobility and freedom than they ever had before," she says. "It will also shift more of their time away from television and games."
Unsurprisingly, the children are equally excited. "All of us are so happy to be able to cycle, even though some of the kids don't know how to yet," says 14-year-old Rabina Giri, a Room to Read scholar with SAATHI. She says that it takes some of the children about an hour to walk to school, so it's clear the bikes will have an immediate impact on their lives.
Dan Austin is headed for India next to distribute more magical vessels of happiness. He's a veritable Santa Claus, on wheels of course.