By Megan E. Davis
Joe’s business started with just a few goats.
Every day he delivered five liters of milk to customers in his small village in the Republic of Zambia in southern Africa.
Months later, Joe owned a herd of goats, employed four people, and produced enough milk to supply his and several neighboring villages.
“It’s the immediate gratification,” Mike Bedke said with a hint of excitement evident in his voice as he told the story.
Bedke, a lawyer with DLA Piper in Tampa recently named one of three inaugural global ambassadors for World Bicycle Relief, said the simplicity of the nonprofit’s work drew him in.
“Whether you’re dealing with HIV/AIDS-related issues, domestic violence issues, or world hunger, this is something where for $134 you can immediately, completely transform someone’s life,” he said.
Founded in 2005 to assist relief in Sri Lanka following the Indian Ocean tsunami, WBR has since expanded its mission and supplied specially designed, locally assembled, ruggedized bikes to more than 120,000 people in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Costing $134 each, the bicycles provide transportation that opens doors to a wide array of life-changing opportunities — access to clean water and natural resources, health care and disease eradication, education, and entrepreneurship and economic vitality.
Bedke described two additional examples of the organization’s impact.
One involves a young girl, Belita, who one of WBR’s founders, F.K. Day, was encouraged to meet.
“As is the case in so many parts of the world, the boys get sent to school and the girls get to go if there’s time or if they get their chores done, but the emphasis is more on the son,” Bedke said. “F.K. meets this young girl. Everyone says she’s really, really smart; you ought to meet her. So the next thing you know, he gives her a bike.”
For most in the region, it’s a four- or six-mile walk to school, he said.
“She’d been going to school only one or two days a week,” Bedke said. “Now she goes to school every day and is going off to university.”
Bedke said he appreciates WBR’s role in empowering women and girls.
“Seventy percent of bikes actually go to girls so they can get to school and back,” he said.
In another instance, relief organizations approached WBR for assistance with volunteer health care programs working to combat HIV/AIDS in Zambia, where more than 40 percent of the population is infected.
“They kept training all these volunteers and had tremendous turnover, like 90 percent,” Bedke said. “The volunteers, who were mostly women, said, ‘Look, we want to help our communities and help eradicate this disease but we can’t spend three or four hours just to get to the place where we’re supposed to be providing this work.’”
WBR began offering bicycles and turnover has dropped to 30 percent.
“That’s still high, but it’s a seismic shift from 90 percent,” Bedke said. “All of a sudden the volunteers are saying, ‘I can get there, do what I need to do, and still get home to care for my own family or do what I need to do in my own village. I’ll keep doing it.’”
Bedke again referenced the simplicity of the bicycle, nicknamed “the buffalo” because it’s “sturdy as a buffalo” and designed to carry up to 220 pounds in excess of the rider.
“It’s a no-frills one-speed bike with coaster brakes and a rack built onto the back,” he said. “It’s really a great way to leverage all these other resources, all for just $134.”
After learning about WBR through his firm, Bedke was chomping at the bit to become involved.
“Mike came to us as an age-group activist,” said Claire Geiger, grassroots development manager of WBR. “He’s really involved in cycling and Ironman. We knew he’d be a great fit for our ambassador program.”
A decades-long cycling enthusiast, Bedke competes in one or two Ironman triathlon events each year. In the past, he’s participated in Ironman’s premier race in Kohala Coast, Hawaii. He also regularly participates in long, challenging events, such as the Death Ride, 129 miles with more than 15,000 feet of climbing in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
After having children, Bedke adopted an abbreviated training regimen in which he regularly rises at 5 a.m. to run a total of at least 30 miles per week. He also usually “squeezes in” one ride each weekend of at least 50 miles.
Still, Bedke said WBR’s March 18 announcement that he would be one of three global ambassadors for the organization caught him off guard.
“I sent off an application kind of just for yucks,” he said.
The honor puts him in the company of Sarah Kent of Perth, Australia, a world champion track star and highly competitive cyclist eyeing a bid to the 2016 Olympics in Rio, and Luke Beemer, a recent high school graduate who races mountain bikes, cyclocross, and road bikes with sights set on wins in various areas of professional cycling.
“I was shocked and frankly still feel, I would say humbled, but it’s more just disbelief,” Bedke said. “The other two are the types of folks I would have expected, really. They describe me as an ‘age group activist.’ I’m competitive in my age group in races but certainly not one who will be going to the Olympics other than as a spectator or doing anyting even remotely like that.”
Triathletes are divided into two categories: elite or professionals competing at an international level; and age group, which includes nonprofessionals who race against others of the same sex and within their five-year age band.
However, in just a few months with the organization, Geiger said Bedke has “exceeded all expectations.”
“He’s been coming to us on a nearly daily basis with new ideas, ways to engage new donors, foster relationships with new organizations,” she said.
WBR’s announcement naming the three ambassadors describes Bedke as “recognized nationally for his pro bono work assisting disaster victims and defending the rights of victims of domestic violence” and as having “a list of accolades too long to mention them all.”
Richard Woltmann, president and CEO of Bay Area Legal Services, said he’s worked with Bedke on philanthropic causes for more than 25 years and described him as a “visionary.”
“He perceives opportunities where others don’t and once he does, he marshals the resources needed and has a network of state, national, and local connections, who because they have such respect for Mike, get on board,” he said.
He puts his efforts into projects that have vitality and are still around.”
Woltmann pointed to the Family Justice Center of Hillsborough County as an example.
About a decade ago, Bedke served on President George W. Bush’s advisory council on domestic violence. The council decided to establish 15 family justice centers throughout the United States.
“They were to be centers where victims could go for one-stop shopping for their employment, psychological, medical, and legal needs,” Woltmann said. “Instead of victims trying to get around the community to all these different organizations, have them colocated in one place to make it much easier for them to get the services they need to break the cycle of abuse.”
The council received applications from more than 300 cities and Tampa was the only one accepted from the Southeast.
“We as a community, led by Mike, put together a winning application,” Woltmann said. “It’s still in existence and about 25 agencies work out of it. He’s done this kind of work in so many areas and he gets things done.”
Bedke described how he hopes to help create the same high level of enthusiasm for WBR as he has for other causes.
Officially, the ambassadors are tasked with raising $15,000, enough to fund 100 bicycles and the work of 10 mechanics in the field, Geiger said.
“While the others try to spread the word as kind of sponsored athletes, I suspect I’m going to be on the Rotarian circuit if you will, going to speak at various Kiwanis and Rotary clubs,” Bedke said. “I’ll be speaking more with clients’ friends, and other people who I think will be moved by the stories and perhaps have the ability to contribute in different ways, hopefully financially being one of them.”
Bedke has already been granted an opportunity to speak to athletes at an upcoming Ironman race in Canada.
To date, he has raised more than $8,000 and has set a personal goal of reaching the $15,000 mark before the Ironman race in August.
Bedke is also challenging himself to raise $25,000 by the end of the calendar year and has hopes of raising much more.
Several years ago, he completed a 150-mile foot race across the Sahara to raise money for the Spring of Tampa Bay, a domestic violence shelter.
“That thing just caught fire and by the end we raised more than $100,000,” he said. “The 25 should be pretty doable, but in the back of my mind I’m thinking, you know, catch fire, let’s double or triple that.”
To learn more about World Bicycle Relief and Bedke’s efforts, visit http://action.worldbicyclerelief.org/page/outreach/view/individual/MikeBedke.