God's Pedal Power Ministry provides bikes to needy
TAMPA Hillsborough County's busier thoroughfares such as Florida and Fletcher avenues carry heavy loads of cars, trucks, SUVs, buses and, increasingly, bicycles. Mike Olsen is part of a North Tampa group that since 1997 has provided free, usually refurbished, bicycles to people who can't afford them. "We've quadrupled the number of bikes we give out in five years," said the 64-year-old Tampa native. Called "God's Pedal Power Ministry," the team of volunteers work out of a shop on the grounds of University Baptist Church at 2121 E. 131st Ave. The ministry distributed about 1,600 bicycles in 2012, said Olsen, who describes the operation as a shared ministry between University Baptist Church and St. James United Methodist Church in New Tampa.He attributes much of the increased demand to hard times in the neighborhood, which generally is west of the University of South Florida's campus in Tampa. "The economy has been just devastating for people in this area," he said. "You can imagine what it's like for someone without transportation." Providing a way to get to work and otherwise take care of life's business is central to the group's purpose, in Olsen's view. That's how it has worked out for Gene Goodling, who puts about 100 miles a week on his bike. He wore out his first ride -- a red Schwinn -- and received a refurbished aluminum Denali as a replacement. "It really helps me beyond expectations. A lot of people really need their bike for their income," said the Tampa resident who uses bike racks on Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority buses to extend his mobility. Goodling said it has become more difficult to use the bike racks and catch a ride because they often are full when a bus arrives at his stop. "A lot of times I just have to lock it up and take the bus without it or just ride to where I'm going," Goodling said. Meeting the increased demand for bicycles has led Olsen to develop sources ranging from people donating a single bike to large, national retailers purging their inventory. He has traveled far and wide on quests for bikes, including a trip to the Florida Panhandle for a load from a beach-town bicycle rental service. Increasing the number of bikes on hand is one way the ministry is meeting the greater demand. Another is by accepting applications on a referral basis from an outside agency such as the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, Francis House or Metropolitan Ministries. According to Olsen, having an application vetted by an outside source cuts down on fraudulent requests and expands the benefits of the program. "It drives them toward organizations and services that can help them," he said. Volunteers with God's Pedal Power Ministry work on bikes and store equipment in a garage-like structure that shelters the operation from rain and sun. It almost is filled with bikes, parts and tools, largely recycled or rescued from Olsen's contacts in the cycling community. Large doors allow air to circulate, and the lighting is an improvement over what was provided by an extension cord when the volunteers worked outdoors and stored tools and bikes in nearby vacant apartments. A constant resourse, however, has been the volunteers who repair the bikes and administer the program. The ministry could use more help, though. Repairing bikes is an acquired skill and the range of expertise among the volunteers is considerable. Jim Kline made a living building bicycles for major retail store chains. Following that career, he finds working on bicycles as a volunteer is a natural thing to do. "It's a tiny thing that's giving back, but really you're doing what you're supposed to do," he said. For retired merchant seaman George Boerschig, needing some repairs on his own bike offered an introduction to the shop and he found it a great resource. God's Pedal Power Ministry is open from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. on Tuesdays on the grounds of University Baptist Church.