A Note from Fatty: For the next little while, I’m going to be alternating between talking about prizes for the giant WBR fundraiser I started earlier this week, and telling stories from my trip to Zambia last Summer. Today’s a story day, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get familiar with the contest and donate.
Today I want to tell you a really heartwarming story about one of my favorite moments from our trip to Zambia last Summer.
The best part of the story is the video, which you absolutely must watch, all the way to the end. It makes me laugh with joy — and yes, I chose the word “joy” after thinking pretty carefully about it — every time I watch it.
But I have to warn you: the point I’ll be making with this story is quite a bit different than the one you might be expecting me to make.
Finding Something to Do
One of the risks we took in having a couple of 16-year-old kids come with us to Zambia was that we knew that neither of these kids really care about bikes at all.
As the trip progressed, that changed. Like everyone with us, they got a real sense of how much of a difference a bike can make in a person’s life.
That said, their tolerance for all things bicycle-related did have its limits.
And so it was that, on one day, while the bike-obsessed among us watched with admiration as a WBR-trained bike field mechanic worked on someone’s broken bike, Melisa (aka The Swimmer) became bored.
So bored that she wandered over to where a bunch of kids were playing soccer with their homemade soccer ball, and joined in.
The kids were pretty amazed, frankly, for a few reasons.
First, because it was pretty much as unusual for a blonde white teenage girl to be playing soccer with them them as it would be for a martian to be playing soccer with them.
Second, because girls in Zambia don’t play soccer at all.
And third, because Melisa is really, really good at soccer.
A Good Idea
The field mechanic had finished his work, but we were all still hanging around, just enjoying the day and watching the show. Melisa had a great game going on with the increasingly large crowd of kids (word had spread).
And that’s when Melisa had a brilliant idea.
“Mom,” she asked The Hammer, “do we have any soccer balls left we can give away?” (We had brougth six soccer balls with us, courtesy of a co-worker of The Hammer and Rod at the local Rotary Club.)
“We do have one left, yes,” I replied. “But we had plans to . . .”
“I can’t think of anyone better to give this ball to than these kids,” The Hammer said.
“I totally agree,” I agreed.
I Love This Video
Melisa ran and grabbed the ball, and started pumping it up to give to the kids. A crowd drew around. Hushed. Hoping.
And you’ve got to see what happens next:
My Grand Plan
This gave me such a boost the whole rest of the day, having seen so many kids so happy over such a small thing.
And it got me to thinking: I should start working to get a steady supply of soccer balls to Zambia.
So at dinner that night, I talked with F.K. Day, the CEO of World Bicycle Relief. “I’d like to find a way to start bringing a bunch of soccer balls out here,” I said. “They’re not expensive, and they make the kids so happy.”
F.K. smiled. “Yeah, it was a lot of fun seeing those kids go nuts over that soccer ball,” he said. “In fact, it’s really tempting to just give people here all kinds of things.”
“But it’s not the way WBR works,” F.K. continued. “There used to be a textile industry in Zambia, which was completely destroyed when western countries started dumping boatload after boatload of free clothes on the country. The fabric industry here couldn’t compete with free, and people lost their jobs.”
“We have to be very careful with our giving here,” F.K. said. “When we give a child a bike, she signs a contract to maintain it, to keep going to school. There are responsibilities and consequences that come with the bike.”
“And above all,” F.K. said, “We give them tools they can use to make their own lives better.”
And I suddenly got it. “They need us to help them get started. They don’t need us to be Santa Claus.”
“Yeah. And we’ve been thinking about who to focus on when we give bikes away, and have found that girls are the ones who, when their life is improved, take that improvement and bring it back to their families and community.”
“And we make sure the community gets seriously involved with which specific kids get bikes. Community leaders weigh who lives furthest from schools and has the greatest need.
“Even the big ceremony is a serious part of our program,” F.K. told me. “Everyone in the area sees these kids getting these bikes, and they know it’s a big deal; they’ve been entrusted with something important and special. They know the bike isn’t something to be taken lightly.”
Giving Like Grown-Ups
I’ve thought about that conversation a lot since then. And while I’ve always liked the romance of the idea behind World Bicycle Relief — giving bikes to people who desperately need them just sounds noble — I now really like the fact that WBR handles their charity like grownups.
They’re doing good in the world, but they’re not merely doing it from the gut. They’re using their brains, too. They’re resisting the temptation to do what I would probably do if I ran a charity: just give stuff away because it feels good and it’s easy to do. Which, in the end, is more likely to harm and create dependency than it is to help.
They’re working in such a way that every bike they give has the best chance possible of winding up in the right person’s hands, and doing the most good. That your $134 doesn’t just buy a bike for someone in Africa, but for the right someone, who has made a serious commitment to honor your gift.
It’s fun to play Santa Claus. Hey, there’s an element of Santa Clausery in every fundraiser I do, including this one (speaking of which, maybe now would be a great time to donate).
But I’m glad that’s not WBR’s business model.