Executive Director Kate Koch started Bike Lady Inc. by accident. It was 2008, and she just formally adopted her daughter.
“The adoption’s final, she’s about to turn 1, it’s coming up on Christmas and I was very happy,” Koch says. “I was a 41-year-old first-time mom, and I wanted to just pay it forward.”
Franklin County has a holiday donation program for children in foster care, so Koch decided to do something special — give a $1,000 worth of bikes.
“So I went to Wal-Mart to buy a few bikes, and I bought 26,” she says.
The manager helped with the pricing, threw in free helmets and Koch upped her budget.
Twenty-six was an odd number, so she appealed to friends to get up to 30. Then, it became 33, and word got around. WOSU Radio’s Ann Fisher, with the Columbus Dispatch at the time, wrote a column about it.
In one month, Koch gathered 125 bikes and helmets.
“I would come home from the grocery store or work or whatever and there would be brand-new bikes in my driveway, and I wouldn’t know where they came from,” Koch says.
Unexpected parallels, amazing results
An impulse turned into a cause that Koch is even more passionate about today, as she uses Bike Lady as a platform to educate people.
Last year, Bike Lady gave 1,655 kids new bikes in 32 counties, for a total of 6,477 bikes since the nonprofit formed. She no longer gets bikes at retail stores; Koch buys direct from Huffy, and prisoners from three Ohio prisons assemble the bikes.
As more people found out about her organization and learned why bikes are important to this particular population, Koch says, it has kept growing.
“It’s like throwing a pebble in the pond, and seeing how far the rings can go,” she says.
Koch also discovered parallels between the prison volunteers, many of whom grew up in foster care, and the children who receive the bikes.
“The thing that is maybe the most powerful aspect of having a relationship with offenders building bikes for kids in foster care is that they’re both incarcerated to some extent,” she says.
An average of 15,000 Ohio kids are foster care and they live by a lot of rules and regulations. A bike provides joyful freedom and desperately needed transportation.
Everyone who helps with Bike Lady has another job, like Koch, or is retired. So she says it’s like a Christmas miracle that comes together every year.
Bike Lady also is unique because the volunteers don’t see the results. The foster care population is cloaked in confidentiality, so you don’t get that hands-on satisfaction. (Bike Lady’s annual Foster Hope Joyride, which will be held again in October, does provide a little of this.)
“It’s something that I really admire about people that contribute to this organization,” Koch says. “The friends of the Bike Lady have great spirit. They provide volunteer efforts or provide charitable funding without ever meeting the person that they’re serving or helping, and I think that really is true charity — where you’re doing something for a stranger you’re never, ever going to meet and who can do nothing for you.”
In her day job, Koch is a businesswoman, and she’s found those skills helpful.
“In charitable work, it’s not that much different than for-profit work. You face the same obstacles and challenges, either way,” Koch says.
For example, two years ago she faced a supply chain issue. The Columbus Blue Jackets Foundation, in partnership with Nationwide Children’s Hospital, donates helmets every year. Helmets are branded offshore and come into the port of Seattle or Tacoma. But when the union went on strike, nothing went in or out of the port.
“All of my helmets were sitting on a dock in Tacoma, Washington,” Koch says. “I had no helmets — none. Well, what am I going to do? I can’t give bikes to these kids without helmets.”
She had to scramble to find another supplier. She made phone calls to every organization she could think of — picking up 50 helmets here and 100 helmets there. That way she could give the bikes for the holidays, and pay everyone back when her helmets were released.
Koch’s newest challenge is that she’s reached a level where she needs more professional management. All of her funding goes directly to buy bikes, so she has to find the right people to help.
In business you almost always want to grow, but Koch says she struggles with this sometimes.
“Have I reached my max capacity that I can handle while I still work at the same time? Do I have to quit my job in order to make this grow any further?” she says. “Believe me, I lay in bed at night thinking about it.”
She still doesn’t have the answers, although she wants to expand her work with prisoners, who have become as important as the kids.
“You just keep doing it, and however it happens, it happens, and that’s OK,” Koch says. “Whether it’s less than last year, the same as last year or more — it’s OK. You just do it. You don’t kill yourself doing it.”
She also has to remind herself that it’s her own children’s Christmas season, too.
“I think it’s important that we all find balance in our family life, our work lives and our giving life,” she says.