By George Gore Browne, Special to the Independent
For many in Laguna Beach cycling serves as a source of exercise and enjoyment, but for 20-year resident Amy Stonich it serves as a chance to give back.
Here, Stonich, 41, parlays her love for biking into Project Bike Love, based in Trabuco Canyon, which strives to empower women in developing countries, such as Paraguay, through the gift of a bicycle.
“We arrived at a convent where we met 11 of the women in Puerto Casado,” said Stonich, describing Project Bike Love’s recent trip to Paraguay. “We asked each of them to tell the story of how they would use the bike. We were all so excited to give them these bikes that would change their lives.”
Stonich explains that the visit last November came to fruition through a collaboration with another non-profit organization. Techo, based in Santiago, Chile, builds transitional homes for families that live in slum like conditions. Working together, Project Bike Love and Techo were able to identify 40 women in the Paraguay villages of Limpio, Puerto Casado and Carmelo Peralta to receive these bicycles.
The bicycles distributed were purchased in Paraguay and were chosen for their simplicity and durability. “Each bike was fitted with a basket on the front and a rack for carrying goods on the back. When we met the first group of women, they brought their fish, their vegetables and their baked goods that they planned to transport with the bikes,” Stonich said.
Bikes would allow the women to ride from their homes to the market to sell their goods. “Now that I have my bike I don’t have to wait hours for the bus to come to the community,” Limpio resident Jessica, 16, says in a testimonial on the group’s website. Project Bike Love paid $4,000 for the bikes, mostly underwritten by Rock n Road Cyclery in Laguna Niguel and Red Monkey Sports in Lake Forest.
Stonich spent a week in Paraguay along with other Project Bike Love supporters. Despite the occasional torrential rainstorm she enjoyed every minute of it. Stonich credits this gratifying experience to friend and Project Bike Love co – founder, Erin Machan, 32, of Portola Hills.
Two years earlier, Machan “hit the reset button on life.” Amid personal and professional turmoil, including a career switch, her passion for bicycles remained steady. She began to wonder how bicycles could help others like they had helped her. “I wanted to take something that helped me so much and help the world with it.”
These good intentions would soon falter if Machan failed to find a method of delivery. In Christmas 2014, she received a gift that proved a source of inspiration. “It was a silver charm bracelet with a little bike dangling from it and a note that said, ‘we thought because bicycles have been an important part of your life, you would find pleasure in knowing a donation has been made in your honor for a bicycle that will make a big difference in the life of a young girl’.” The life changing gift provided Machan a road map to start Project Bike Love and distribute bicycles to those in need.
Now, Project Bike Love has set its sights on Panama as its next destination and will again team up with Techo to locate worthy beneficiaries. But as Ramirez explains, help can be delivered without international travel. “Our goal is to create communities in every country, to find women who are as passionate as we are about empowering other women, and they become Project Bike Love ambassadors.”
Project Bike Love reassuringly has a great example to follow. Pioneer mountain biker Hans Rey and his wife Carmen, also Laguna Beach residents, have distributed 8,000 bikes in several developing nations through their Wheels 4 Life foundation, which also aims to provide transportation to those in need.
When looking towards the future, Ramirez envisions Project Bike Love “working in different continents, not only the Americas.” For Ramirez, Project Bike Love has showed her “that you don’t have to be a big organization to make a change in the world. You just need to want it.”
George Gore Browne is a journalism student and a Laguna Beach Independent intern.