In the area of Tampa just west of USF sometimes known as Suitcase City, people are finding their way to University Baptist Church, but not for the usual reasons.
Inside an adjacent workshop built with donated cement blocks and an aluminum roof, the floors are covered with bikes, some ready to be taken home, some in need of work. The walls are lined with tires and rims. There are boxes of pedals, tubes and helmets.
God’s Pedal Power Ministry was started more than eight years ago. The Ministry repairs and services bicycles, provides parts and even whole bikes free of charge. All you have to do is ask.
“I don’t know, I guess I’m crazy,” says Mike Olsen, unofficial chairman of the ministry. “We’re only here for 100 years, so (you should) do the best you can.”
In a neighborhood that has many low-income families, many of them single-parent, Olsen says the Ministry’s goal is to help the area. He laments the fact that in some cities people vie with each other to have the most expensive car, while in the area around the church, some people “don’t even have bicycles.”
Around 15 to 20 people turn up most evenings seeking help with flat tires, dented wheels, loose spokes and other mechanical problems. There is never a charge for a repair or a bike. The Ministry survives on donations and the generosity of people giving their energy and time.
It was given a grant of $5,000 at Christmas with the stipulation that it be used not only for bikes, but also for helmets, lights and locks. The money allowed the Ministry to purchase 62 bikes, and deserving children from a local school were invited to the church to receive new bikes.
Aside from Olsen, GPPM does not have a permanent staff. Volunteers come and learn to work on bikes. Most of the volunteers are former bike recipients.
Tim Ames has been volunteering at GPPM for almost seven years. He says he typically devotes two months to the Ministry and then takes time off. Ames credits the influence of Olsen and his involvement with GPPM for keeping him out of trouble.
Ames is planning to start his own ministry where kids can learn to use computers and get help dealing with any issue they may have. Working with GPPM, Ames says, has given him the confidence that he can make a difference and “give something back to the community.”
The Ministry has received help from the East Tampa Sertoma Club and the Tampa Rotary Club and, as a result of a recently secured relationship with JB Importers of Miami, is able to obtain bike parts at cost. It also received a large donation of parts from the University Bike Shop on Fletcher Avenue as well as 150 to 200 bikes from the USF police department that they could not, by Florida law, auction off. Olsen says the bikes from USF will be used mostly for parts.
Olsen says that the University Baptist Church has been very gracious in allowing them to use the property. Before the workshop was built GPPM used two Sunday school classrooms. It did not take long for the Ministry to thrive, and it determined that a separate facility would be necessary. After contacting several Christian builders, supplies began arriving and the building of the workshop commenced.
As a ministry, Olsen says he does not mind asking people for donations. If they need something at the workshop, he will find the best price and ask if they can go any lower.
The workshop is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays evenings from 6 to 9.