Michael Van Dusseldorp | Chippewa Falls, WI
They’re human beings, just like you and me. They just need someone in their corner to help push them forward to be a better version of themselves, or simply to be there just to listen to them.
A few years back, I got into a bad car accident in Arkansas and was injured. I was bed-ridden for a while, in a lot of pain—I just couldn’t take care of myself. I had a lot of medical bills. I had a hard time finding work. My mental health wasn’t in the best state, and I fell into a depression. My wife went to work every day, and I felt terrible for not being able to do my part to support us both. I was jobless, felt useless, and didn’t feel like I mattered.
One day, my wife wanted to ride her bike, but it needed some tuning up since it hadn’t been ridden in a while. I started fiddling with the bike and realized it was sort of fun. I had no idea what I was doing when I started fixing bikes. The most fixing I had done until then was raising and lowering my wife’s bike seat and inflating the tires. I purchased some tools and watched YouTube videos on how to fix bicycles. I would go to a couple of local bike shops to watch them do repairs to see how they did it, and I learned relatively quickly. There’s still a lot of things I don’t know, but I’m not afraid to dive into a project, mess up, and try again.
After fixing my wife’s bike, I worked on my bike, and I liked doing it to the point where I eventually started fixing other people’s bikes just for fun. I’d ride to test them out and make sure I fixed them well. The more bikes I fixed, the more I rode them. And the more I did that, the better I felt because I was active.
Fixing bikes gives me purpose again and an outlet to meet and talk with people, especially those in need, including people who are homeless. I had already been helping people who are homeless and people who are in need—but this aimed my focus. I founded New Life Recyclery in March 2020, to restore bikes into riding condition to give to those in need. I’ll get referrals from people—neighbors, community members and law enforcement. Other times, I might see a homeless person walking, and I’ll go home, grab a fixed bike, and circle back to try and find them. I’m not afraid to approach people who are homeless, get to know them, and listen to their stories. My goal is to help them work toward a better future. I don’t care what happened in their past. I want to help them however I can, like giving them a bike as a tool to get them where they need to be. They don’t have a lot to begin with already; for many, a bike may be the only valuable thing that they own. A repurposed bike can help break the cycle of homelessness. Without access to transportation or enough money for gas or bus fare, it is difficult to get where you need to be. A lot of times, someone who is homeless needs to get to certain places to access community resources, and they just don’t have the means to get there because of lack of transportation and money.
I just want to spread love and joy to people. Many people feel like homeless people don’t matter. People are scared to go and talk to these guys. But that’s what they need the most—someone to talk with and to listen to them. I know the benefits of having those hard conversations with others to unpack one’s emotions and experiences in order to process and move forward from that situation. For me, it wasn’t easy to do at first but helped me so much in the long run. Now, I want to tell others that this, too, can work for them.
I have a lot of people who will contact me saying, ‘Hey, I know this person,’ or ‘I saw this person at such and such. This is where they were. This is what they look like.’ I’ll follow up on it and try to find them. I talk with a lot of people. I’m a part of their life. It’s like a family. Somebody that I don’t even recognize will see me and say, ‘Hey, you’re the bike guy.’
With New Life Recyclery, there are about 150 bikes on my property, most of which have been donated. They otherwise would have ended up in the junkyard. Since the nonprofit started, I’ve repaired close to 500 bikes. That’s the whole point of New Life Recyclery—I fix and give away bikes to people who are homeless or in need. Many have stayed in the Chippewa Valley, but a handful of them have made their way around the country and internationally to places as far away as Honduras and Cameroon.
Growing up, that’s just the way I was, giving back or sharing what I had and getting to know people’s stories and situations. There’s a lot of people out there that don’t have a lot. Once the homeless community knows that you want to get involved, they’ll help you identify other people in need. When I talk with one guy who is homeless, he might know where a few others are staying a few miles away. So then, I’m like, ‘Okay, hop in the car. Show me. Let’s talk to them. Let’s get things going. Let’s help.’ Once the charities and all these food banks and places know who you are, and that you want to help in the effort, they’ll make sure relevant contacts are there to assist you and help make it happen. I’ve had ministers and law enforcement officers pull up into my driveway and tell me people they know who might need a hand.
When I’m going to the store or places in town, I ask people if they know of anyone who might need help getting around. I’m currently working on two bikes for two local veterans. Some people in need might not know how to drive or may have lost their driving privileges due to various reasons. I’m trying to give them the tools that they need to get where they need to be.
I don’t profit from any of this. I’ve had a few donations come in but not nearly enough to cover expenses, like repairing or replacing broken inner tubes or bent tire spokes. If I don’t have the funds to purchase a part that I don’t already have, then the bike just sits unrepaired, and that’s not good. There are used bikes dropped off in great condition; others might need a tune-up. Some have been dragged out of the bottom of the lake and can’t be saved, but their parts are reusable. I have a lot of bike rims and stuff that has been donated. Some are bent, but I can rebuild them from the ground up and put new spokes in it. It’s all about recycling, repurposing, and being resourceful with what’s on hand.
The people who donate the bikes are the ones who deserve the credit, not me. I’m just fixing them up with what I have and know. New Life Recyclery couldn’t exist without their help. The first week, I put out a post about seeking to repurpose bikes; I received nearly 50 bicycles just like that. I received phone calls from people who connected me with other people who had bikes to give away. It was just like a chain reaction setting off. It truly is a community of people helping each other. I keep track of who needs bikes, and what their height and weight is, so I can make sure that the bike fits them properly. Seeing the joy on people’s faces after receiving something as simple as a bike is what keeps me going. A lot of them break down crying, and it’s just an amazing feeling to know you had a part in helping them.
My wife has been amazing in all of this. She’s my rock and biggest supporter. When I was involved in a bad car accident and couldn’t physically take care of myself, I fell into a depression. She helped me through it all, getting me back to being me and starting up the nonprofit. The biggest thing is just realizing that we all have to be there for each other because this world is already hard. That’s what this is all about—listening, having those tough conversations about their hardships or situations that they’re going through, making connections, and connecting them with the right resources to get them the help that they need. New Life Recyclery has breathed new life in me again and given me purpose—helping others in need.