There’s no surprise the acronym for Bikes For Farmworkers is BFF. The group is indeed creating lasting friendships.
The volunteers — between four and six people — work on bicycles for very grateful offshore labourers. They chat chummily as they work, and when Jamaican and Mexican workers enter the space, they’re greeted with warm smiles and claps on the back.
One of the volunteers says, “Welcome. What can we do for you today?”
“We’re just a bunch of retired guys in the basement working on bikes,” said Terry Weiner, one of BFF’s two founders. His partner in generosity is Mark Gaudet.
Weiner, who was a senior manufacturing engineering consultant in aerospace and defence, while Gaudet is a former sales operations manager in the pulp and paper industry.
These men were leading lights in their professional careers, and little has changed in their retirement.
The short story is lovely — two local retired men see needs and decide to fill them.
The needs are those of the migrant workers in this community, who benefit greatly from having affordable transportation.
“We didn’t invent this. We heard about lone wolves doing this kind of work in their garages or on the farms. We knew there were support groups for offshore workers, and we reached out to all of these people — we mapped out who we needed to be involved with. We also needed to build a large pool of volunteers — drivers, mechanics, translators — to make this work,” said Weiner.
Weiner and Gaudet set up in the basement of the defunct Virgil Public School, and got to work finding, fixing and selling bikes to offshore labourers.
They spread the word, asked friends and family for donated bikes, set up some makeshift equipment, brought their tools from home and fixed bikes.
Since January of 2017 they have refurbished, repaired and sold over one thousand bicycles.
A grant from the Niagara Community Foundation allowed them to set up four repair berths with stands, tables and tools for each.
But the long story is the one really worth telling — it’s the story of the ripples created by Weiner and Gaudet’s initial splash.
Through giving farm workers affordable, independent transportation, they’ve also given them freedom to mitigate their isolation — freedom to go to the grocery store, the library, the park, church, make friendly visits to other farms and connect to the community at large.
They’ve also helped support the families of the workers. At the end of the season, most Jamaican labourers pack up crates to send home to their loved ones.
Many of those crates now carry bicycles home for kids who can use them to enhance their own lives in the same ways. And the cycle begins again at the beginning of the next fruit season, when the workers return to Niagara — and buy another bike.
The ripples reach as far as Jamaica, and as close as Fonthill, Leamington, and other nearby agricultural towns. Gaudet and Weiner have created a discussion document and filled a thumb drive with every detail of how to replicate the success of their venture — which is, in fact, financially self-sustaining. The guide includes sections with titles like Measurable Objectives, Key Activities and Evaluation Indicators; Bikes For Farmworkers — Supply Chain; and BFF-NOTL Sponsors, Suppliers, Volunteers and Supporters – Direct and Indirect.
There are appendices with maintenance and pre-release checklists, the thumb drive containing everything from repair manuals and videos to any potentially needed signage — seven versions of shop hours, tool rules, vacation hours and pretty much everything else anyone would need to set up their own “franchise” of the Bikes For Farmworkers concept.
They have made presentations in several towns, and will continue to do so in hopes their system will be recreated wherever there are offshore workers. There are more than 2,000 migrant workers every year in Niagara-on-the-Lake alone.
Ontario-wide, the number is closer to thirty thousand.
This model could also be viable for long-term residents in communities that lack affordable transportation, or for other short-term workers.
For example, BFF also sells bicycles to first-year Shaw actors, and donates to Syrian refugees.
“The only thing we can’t replicate for other towns, though, is the profound generosity and support of the people of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Not everyone can get such a perfect space donated; not every community has this many bicycles to donate. We’re so lucky to be in this town,” said Gaudet.
They’re also fortunate enough to have several local bike shops give them spare parts and extra bits and pieces.
“Lights are the sticking point, though. We just can’t find anything affordable that lasts and doesn’t require recharging or replacing batteries. We’re still working on that,” said Weiner.
Future plans include continuing to share the concept with other towns, as well as training one keen worker per farm to be a go-to on site for his coworkers. BFF will lend them a “Bike Box” with all the necessary tools and supplies to keep the bikes in good shape through the season.
They’re also hoping to bring in students for their community volunteering hours, and teach them to fix bikes and help out in the shop.
All they need now is more bicycles.
“If you have a bike, ride it,” said Gaudet. “If you don’t ride it, give it to us. And hey, when you see these hardworking guys out and about in our town, just reach out, smile and say hi.”