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‘It’s freedom, a chance to expand’

Posted by | Catholic Charities Communications

Catholic Charites refugee team partners with local organization that provides free bicycles

More than 50 Portland-area refugees served by Catholic Charities of Oregon will be rolling through spring with new or refurbished bicycles, helmets and locks. That’s thanks to a consortium of cycle-minded nonprofits.

The volunteers from Reborn Bikes want to share their two-wheeled joy with people who otherwise couldn’t afford it.

Joe Kurmaskie, executive director of Reborn Bikes as well as leader of Hillsboro-based WashCo Bikes, calls the guild “The Fellowship of the Chain Ring.”

The refugee cycles handed out March 23 at Catholic Charities include top brands like Trek and Specialized. Adults and children now have reliable Portland-style transport.

“We want to make cyclists,” said Kurmaskie, crescent wrench in hand after having just lowered a seat to fit an Afghan girl’s lanky legs. “It’s freedom, a chance to expand their peer group.”

Kurmaskie said that success for children in music or sports often depends on their ability to make it to practice and events. For a family without a car, bicycles can be the difference.

Joe Kurmaskie, executive director of Reborn Bikes and volunteer Lee Ravenscroft help refugee Sheriben fit his new bicycle March 23 at Catholic Charities of Oregon.

“Together, we really have an impact,” said Kurmaskie. The group refurbishes and sends out about 10,000 bicycles per year, always along with safety gear like helmets, lights and locks.

The group estimates that by re-using and giving out bikes, they keep about 90,000 tons of CO2 from getting into the atmosphere.

As he speaks, Kurmaskie holds the handlebars of a sloping Trek that he said would be in a landfill it it weren’t for Reborn Bikes.

An Aghan girl and her mother choose bicycles March 23 at Catholic Charities of Oregon.

In addition to the bike giveaway, the organizations provide classes on safe riding and even organize youth cycling camps with rides, goofy fun and a free cycle at the end of camp.

Fraternal organizations like the Kiwanis and Optimists send trained volunteers on bike days to make sure bikes fit well and everything is tight.

Refugees are excited about their new mode of transport, which many prefer to buses and automobiles.

“I feel great,” one man said in a note to Tanja Brady, Health and Orientation Instructor for Catholic Charities. “I rode from Catholic Charities to my house. It took only 48 minutes, and I enjoyed it a lot. I needed to relax and that helped me.”

With the support of her family, Kashindi mounts a new bicycle at Catholic Charities March 23. The family are refugees from deadly strife in Democratic Republic of Congo.

Joe Kurmaskie, executive director of Reborn Bikes, helps an Afghan girl fit her new bicycle March 23 at Catholic Charities of Oregon.

Joe Kurmaskie, executive director of Reborn Bikes, helps an Afghan girl fit her new bicycle March 23 at Catholic Charities of Oregon.

Refugee Ahmad is delighted with a new bicycle during a giveaway and fitting event March 23 at Catholic Charities of Oregon.

‘100% cockroach’

For decades, Joe Kurmaskie was a hard-charging adventure cyclist and writer whose pieces appeared in Outdoor magazine and multiple bicycle journals. A book about how cycling linked him to people, “Metal Cowboy,” launched a successful career as an author.

But as he hit 50 or so, he started to feel worn down, chalking it up to age. Then doctors found he had an iron overload in his blood, a serious condition that has taken down athletes and luminaries like Ernest Hemingway. Kurmaskie almost succumbed.

Doctors say he survived only because of his cycling, which made him an uncommon specimen of fitness.

“One hundred percent, I am a Florida cockroach,” said Kurmaskie, now 58. “I stick around.”

Survival does mean periodic blood transfusions. For Kurmaskie, it also means shifting from a focus on adventure to doing as much good as he can with what years he has left. And he wants to be in the front lines at places like Catholic Charities of Oregon.

During a recent bike giveaway at Catholic Charities, he helped dozens of refugees get fitted with bikes. At one point, he stopped, looked around and smiled at the giddy recipients, and said, “Nope, I’m not going to sit in a chair all day.”