Two years ago on a flight from Vienna, Martin Vellend found himself bothered by the kicking toddler in the row behind him. Noticing an empty seat a few rows up, he stood and crossed the center aisle, politely asking the woman sitting there, “Is this seat taken?”
Today, Martin thanks that little boy for propelling him into the greatest opportunity of his life.
The woman was Duraine Ross, head of the Canadian branch of Faith’s Orphan Fund, a non-profit organization which seeks to give education and care to the orphaned children of Zambia. Started in 1993 by Faith Liyena, FOF is made up of a group of training centers, which aim to provide the 4000+ orphaned children of Zambia with the education and skills to escape a potential life of poverty.
Immediately following the flight, Martin prompted his family company, Vellend Tech, to sponsor fifteen of Faith’s orphans through monthly donations. Wondering how he could further his involvement, Martin contacted Faith herself, who explained the state of Zambia: That 70% of the country lives in poverty, and that each day more and more children are left orphaned by the AIDS/HIV epidemic, or by families who no longer have the means to care for them. She also explained the structure of her charity, which is made up of 24 learning centers where children from all over Zambia come to learn, play, eat, and grow. The centers weed out top students to perpetuate their system by becoming “implementers”, or teachers, who then educate and train the next generation of children that populate the centers behind them. Faith explained the strength and importance of these centers to the lives of those involved, evidenced by the great distances that children and teachers travelled each day just to be a part of something good.
With talk of distance, Martin realized what he could do. As a bicycle company, Velland Tech had both the inventory and means to donate twenty Fuji bicycles to FOF’s teachers, in an effort to simplify and hasten their daily commute to the training centers. Going one step further, Martin contacted his friend and colleague Pat Cunnane, President of Advanced Sports (the parent company of Fuji Bikes), who was more than willing to help. In addition to Vellend Tech’s twenty Fujis, Cunnane donated an additional fifteen to the effort.
And so in February, armed with 35 bikes, Martin and his nephew Keaton boarded a plane for Zambia, at a total loss for what to expect.
“It was epic,” Martin remembers, of stepping off the plane. “No electricity, no running water, no phones…”
They spent their first night in one of Faith’s training centers in Kitwe, before heading into the bush. For the next four nights they slept on dirt floors in the homes of villagers who welcomed them with open arms. The aches and pains of the day forgotten beneath the glowing faces of pedaling villagers. “I hadn’t, until that point, truly grasped the unparalleled joy a bicycle could bring,” Martin remembers. “These were the 1st bikes ever received [by] Faith's Orphans and teachers. The gratitude, humility … was overwhelming.”
Martin and his team showed the people how to build the first bikes, allowing them to construct the rest themselves. The women used the bike boxes and packaging materials as mattresses for their children, so that no part of the donation went to waste. Martin and Keaton were surprised to find that almost everyone already knew how to ride.
“One guy walked 2 days (65km) from the bush just to get his bike. But now, he'll be back to his village in less than four hours,” Martin recalls. “That’s the difference one bike can make.”
The trip, which only lasted five days, was “done with humility, for all the right reasons,” Martin affirms. “This is about what we can give back.” The joy, and impact of each bike reignited Martin’s passion for cycling, helping him realize that the bicycle industry has the ability—and responsibility—to do more than just sell bikes. “Hopefully what we’ve done will encourage others to take action,” he concluded. “The bicycling industry has the unique opportunity to positively impact the world in so many ways—it’s our responsibility to step outside of ourselves and take action”