Charity: A multiple sclerosis patient and volunteers repair and donate bicycles to poor people worldwide.
Thursday, December 7, 2000
By IRENE GARCIA, Times Staff Writer
Mark Blum was the vice president of an insurance company when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
The chronic disease, which affects the central nervous system and can cause speech defects and loss of muscular coordination, made it impossible for the Agoura Hills man to maintain his hectic executive schedule, so in 1994 he left his job.
Soon after, he began collecting and fixing old bikes and donating them to poor children and adults all over the world. He called the effort "Mission With Bikes."
"I needed something to do," Blum said. "I didn't want to feel sorry for myself. So many people with handicaps do nothing and I didn't want that to happen to me."
Over the years, Blum, 47, has rehabilitated and donated 802 bikes to charities, churches and individuals who otherwise couldn't afford to purchase them.
This Christmas, Blum will give 60 bikes--the biggest single load yet--to poor Navajo children on an Arizona reservation. The Oxnard-based Airlift Wing of the National Guard will pick the bikes up at Blum's house Monday and transport them to the children.
"It's going to be overwhelming," said Joyce Barango, whose nonprofit organization annually conducts Christmas drives for about 225 Navajo children at a boarding school northeast of Flagstaff. "We always bring them clothes and toys, but this is going to be awesome. Mark is an incredible man."
Blum estimates that he spends about $40,000 a year rehabilitating the hundreds of used, donated bikes, although sometimes area bike shops give him discounts on parts. He said he lives on income from his investments and disability insurance.
"This is a labor of love," Blum said, sitting in a wheelchair in his cluttered garage. "Bikes, in essence, have saved my life. I feel very lucky to have found this."
Some of his refurbished bikes have been sent to Russia, Bulgaria, Mexico and all over the United States, said Blum, who is in touch with 82 charities worldwide. Blum initially contacted the groups, but now he said they call him and ask for bikes.
"I've also given a lot of bikes to the homeless," Blum said. "They really need them to get around or look for jobs."
Blum, a divorced father of two, is a charismatic man with gray hair, a goatee and big glasses. His electric wheelchair is equipped with a genuine set of bull's horns so that people "move out of my way," and a loud, attention-grabbing horn that he beeps often.
His garage is packed with old and new bike parts, tires and a variety of tools. Plaques and certificates recognizing his work through the years hang on a wall. One is a proclamation from Congress, another from Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
Blum said his favorite place is the garage, where he hangs out every day from 6 a.m. to about 9 p.m.
"He is really into this," said Blum's nurse, Tina Hanlin. "Everybody in the neighborhood knows him. They stop and talk to him and know him as the bike guy."
Blum's large yard is filled with about 300 bikes, many of which are beyond repair but have valuable parts that can be used to fix other bikes, he said. There are old Huffys, Centurions and Apollos, as well as later-model Schwinns and tricycles. People who know what he does just drop them off, Blum said.
"I went away for a week recently and there were 13 bikes in front of my house [when I came home]," Blum said.
Because he has difficulty walking, diminished manual dexterity and worsening vision, Blum said he can no longer do as many of the repairs as he once did. To get the work done, he has recruited a dozen volunteers--among them a 78-year-old retired man, a musician and several teenagers--to help out regularly.
Ryan Adanalian, 14, is one of them. He and his twin brother, Tommy, spend about two to three hours a week in Blum's garage changing flat tires, fixing brakes or cleaning rusty old bikes.
The boys heard about Blum on a local news show a few years ago and immediately contacted him to volunteer, Ryan said.
"It's fun and it feels really good to help," Ryan said. "What he's doing is so cool. He makes so many people happy."
That's what keeps Blum going. At a weekly support group meeting for multiple sclerosis patients, Blum said he's often the only one who doesn't complain about something.
"When we go around the table most people say, this hurts or that hurts and I always say, 'I gave away another bike.' A lot of times they look at me like I'm nuts, but I'm blessed."
To donate a bike or volunteer, contact Mission With Bikes at (818) 991-5805.