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Small town rallies to house, provide bikes for Afghan evacuees

Published December 30, 2021

BLACK MOUNTAIN, N.C. (BRAIN) — The bike has long been a symbol of freedom, so it's appropriate it played a key part in this small town near Asheville pulling together to help Afghanistan evacuees seek independence.

With tens of thousands of Afghans evacuating their country after the Taliban's takeover, Black Mountain churches and organizations joined together and reached out to Catholic Charities, a community agency experienced with resettlement.

About three weeks ago, the first family arrived.

"When I contacted the woman at Catholic Charities, she said, 'I think we need to place some families in Black Mountain because we're getting an outpouring of requests,'" said Judith Whelchel, rector at St. James Episcopal Church. "We were expecting a family of four and got a family of 13."

A total of 20 evacuees have resettled in Black Mountain and live in temporary housing. CBS News reported on Dec. 16 that seven states, including North Carolina, have taken in more than half of the 31,611 evacuees who have left U.S. military sites to start over in a new country with practically nothing. 

Once settled, the evacuees in Black Mountain needed transportation, and bikes became the obvious option. Lucky for Whelchel, she had a couple of solid connections: longtime friend and Industry Nine owner Clint Spiegel and former local bike shop owner Allan Hightower, a St. James parishioner.

"We need bikes, so let me call my biking buddies," she said. "This sort of grew out of peoples' spiritual lives. And then it connected to the other parts of their lives, and it was pretty amazing."

With supply low in the area, especially in the middle of the holiday season, the group secured 20 pre-owned bikes that Black Mountain's Epic Cycles, Hightower's former shop, and Asheville's Motion Makers Bicycle Shop helped tune. They were delivered on Christmas Eve and included kids bikes.

Also donated were helmets, locks, and lights, while Industry Nine, located in Asheville, helped with finding bikes and contributing money to the effort.

"Judith was the driving force in bringing me, Allan, and Clint Spiegel from i9 together in a group text early last week that culminated in us delivering the bikes on Christmas Eve to them," said Kent Cranford, Motion Makers' owner. "Fast actions with a great outcome."

Spiegel also credited Whelchel's organizational efforts.

"She reached out to many of the bike businesses in the area," Spiegel said. "I definitely feel we owe these families help. I can only imagine how tough it has been to relocate to the States. It was also most likely extremely necessary."

Whelchel said she understands the importance a bike can play for people in need of mobility.

"A bike in this instance is all about freedom. It's just really unbelievable what a bike can do for somebody in this situation. It means they can move around; they can learn about their community; they can make friends. It takes it beyond a leisure activity to a deep need."

From left, Michael Roberts of Epic Cycles, Allan Hightower, and Kent Cranford.

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