Around Bozeman, most people may recognize Andy Austin as a 6-foot-3, 290-pound senior offensive tackle for the Bobcat football team. On Saturdays in the fall, he straps on shoulder pads and a helmet and runs out onto the Bobcat Stadium turf in front of more than 18,000 screaming fans.
However, the 22-year-old from Billings refuses to be defined by his status as an athlete. The fifth-year senior has never been a scholarship player for the ’Cats. He says he plays for the love of the game and the bond he’s formed with his teammates. In addition, his time at MSU has provided Austin with a chance to get an education, give back and develop his entrepreneurial spirit. He has a photography business. He’s an excellent student, majoring in psychology. And, he’s the head of marketing and development for the nonprofit organization Wheels of Change, an endeavor he helped found that has given him the opportunity to change lives across the globe.
“I gave up wondering how he does it all a long time ago,” said Dan Austin, Andy’s father and co-owner, with his wife, Carol, of Austin-Lehman Adventures, an adventure-travel bicycle company based in Billings that takes clients on hiking and biking trips around the world.
Perhaps not so ironically, it was this company for affluent travelers that has helped the people in one of the world’s poorest countries.
As the Austins explain it, in 2010, Austin-Lehman Adventures needed to upgrade its fleet of bicycles, so the company had 120 used but beautiful Gary Fisher bicycles on its hands. The Austins decided to see if there was a way that the bicycles could be used to help others. Dan came across the organization Bicycles for Humanity (B4H) and decided to start his own chapter in Billings. In addition to the Austin-Lehman bikes, he solicited donations from the Billings community, putting up collection containers around the city. Soon, he had more than 400 bikes ready to be shipped to Namibia, a large, rural country on the west coast of Africa.
That summer Dan and Andy Austin traveled to Ngoma, Namibia, to see the first 40-foot-long, 8-foot-high container of bicycles opened by the curious and thrilled residents of a country a world away from the Magic City.
“The first day we got to Africa, there were 10 Namibians there, and we asked them if anyone knew how to ride a bike,” Andy said. “A few of the men raised their hands, but none of the women raised their hands. All the women were wearing traditional long dresses. We spent the whole first day teaching these people how to ride a bike, and it was an absolute blast. The looks on their faces when they first started riding were priceless.”
“Only two of them had ever ridden a bike before,” Dan added. “It’s a lot different teaching a 6-year-old to ride a bike than a 30-year-old Namibian woman who’s never even seen a bike.”
He added that although Namibia was once a German colony, the desolate landscape had not lent itself to bicycles becoming a part of the country’s culture.
As fascinated as the Namibians were with their new form of transportation, they were even more in awe of the blonde, shaggy-haired giant who came bearing gifts.
“To watch him with the locals in Africa, it’s just amazing,” Dan said. “First of all, he’s huge so they are drawn to him. Then you have the blonde hair and his disposition. The way he connects with them is pretty special.”
“For me, it’s all about helping people,” Andy said. “It’s ingrained in my personality. It was a fun idea at first. (When) I went to (Namibia), I saw how beneficial the bikes were, and I talked to the people and realized how wonderful and nice these people are. I wanted to help them.”
After their first trip to Namibia, Dan and Andy wanted to ramp up their efforts to make a difference in Africa. They teamed with Michael Linke of Windhoek, Namibia, who was part of the Bicycle Empowerment Network. Together they formed Wheels of Change International.
WOC International’s mission is to change lives in Africa through the donation of bicycles. However, the organization also promotes sustainable economic enterprise.
So, rather than just putting the bikes in containers, shipping them to Africa and dropping off a pile of foreign objects in a village, WOC helps transform the 40-foot containers into bike shops.
“They have doors and we put a roof on them,” Andy said. “We train 10 to 20 local people who’ve never had skill sets of any kind. They take a six-week bike mechanic and business course. They learn how to run a business and then they run the shop.”
Once established, the bike shops become self-sustaining. Each shipment from the various American chapters of WOC International provides more inventory, but the maintenance and business aspects of each shop are independent. The bikes are sold, not donated, for an average of about $60 U.S.
WOC International also works with groups like UNICEF to help provide transportation to heath care workers. Three out of four Namibians live more than 20 kilometers—or roughly a four-hour walk—from health care facilities. A bicycle for a health care worker provides the ability to visit five times as many people in a given day, creating the ability to deliver AIDS medication or at-home AIDS testing kits. With an AIDS rate among residents as high as one in five, the need for medical attention is significant, but the ability to receive it is next to nonexistent. About one-third of WOC International’s bikes go to health care workers.
The WOC’s work has a particular impact on Namibian women in another way. About 65 percent of all the employees WOC International trains to work at each bike shop are women.
“Not only do you give the Namibian people a job, but you give them a sense of empowerment, an ownership,” Dan said. “It’s not charity. It’s empowering them to be self-sufficient. I’m not a big charity guy. It’s hard for me to just write checks to this fund and that fund. But with this, to actually go load the container on a truck and to know in six months, we will go visit a village and that will be a shop and there will be bikes, that’s awesome.”
The Austins said Wheels of Change hopes to expand the organization domestically to help it grow internationally. In Montana, the Austins hope to establish WOC chapters in Missoula and Bozeman.
While he helps grow WOC, Andy Austin is also closing in on his degree. Andy put in nearly 150 hours of work over the last year for WOC as part of his psychology field practicum while maintaining a nearly 4.0 GPA. He designed the organization’s website and maintains its social media presence. He also will finish up his senior football season in December.
Yet, his work off the field is likely to go on long after his last football season.
“The cool part is not just the bikes,” said Jason McEndoo, MSU offensive line coach and Andy’s position coach in football. “It’s having the foresight to set up the shops, too, so it has a lasting impact in each village. His fortitude and his work ethic really shine through in endeavors like this. “
As far as career plans after graduation, Austin is still deciding whether he will take his photography business to the next level, or maybe try marketing.
He does know that his work in Namibia will forever impact his life.
“The people in Namibia are the happiest people I’ve ever met, and they have nothing,” Austin said. “This experience has taught me to take what I have and be happy and thankful.” ■