To say Joe Laslo is an avid bicyclist is an understatement. The instructional designer with John Deere Intelligent Solutions Group (ISG) in Urbandale, Iowa, pedals between 5,000 and 6,000 miles a year.
That passion nearly cost him his life when Joe was seriously injured in a bike accident in October 2014. What happened during his two-month recuperation changed his life forever.
Sitting in church one Sunday about a month after the accident, Joe heard his pastor challenge the congregation to help serve the poor. The message to Joe was very clear. “God told me, ‘Joe, you’re going to start a ministry to the homeless on your bicycle,’” he remembers.
At first, Joe thought he’d throw some toothpaste, toothbrushes and bars of soap in his backpack, bike to downtown Des Moines, look for some homeless people, and distribute the toiletries. But it didn’t feel quite right.
Instead, he got on the internet, Googled “bike ministry” and up popped the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry in Memphis, Tenn. “I looked at that and thought, that’s exactly what I’ve been asked to do,” Joe remembers. He contacted the organization’s founder, who was more than happy to share the ministry’s model.
Birth of the Burrito Slingers
On Mar. 12, 2015, Joe assembled 25 burritos and 25 bottles of water in his kitchen and took off on his bike. Looking back his first experience still stirs up emotion, more than a year later. “I rolled up to a guy named Norm,” Joe recalls, and then pauses to regain his composure. “I simply asked him, ‘Have you had supper tonight?’ and he said ‘no.’”
And that’s how the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry of Des Moines (UBFM-DM) was born.
Rather than addressing the many needs of the homeless, Joe narrowed his focus to feeding the hungry and building relationships with them. “I discovered there are a lot of food-insufficient people out there – folks who are working – but they’re barely making minimum wage and they go home hungry at night. Sometimes the two or three burritos we give them are their only meal of the day,” he explained.
Joe started recruiting friends and co-workers and the organization has grown quickly in the past year, mostly through word of mouth. Today, with more than 100 volunteers and six designated routes throughout Des Moines, the “Burrito Slingers” as they’re affectionately known on the streets, are preparing and passing out close to 400 burritos each Thursday night. In addition to the burritos, the Slingers may also distribute donated fruit and such seasonal necessities as bug spray, hand warmers, candles and flashlights.
“I feel our actions are much louder than my words.”
– Joe Laslo
Having long ago outgrown Joe’s kitchen, and later, a back room at John Deere’s ISG facility in Urbandale, UBFM-DM now partners with Capitol Hill Lutheran church in downtown Des Moines. A group of retired church members arrive around 3:30 p.m. and start cooking the burrito filling. The bikers show up a couple hours later to help roll the burritos.
Joe then assigns five to ten member teams to various routes, shares a safety briefing, and leads a prayer before the group packs up and heads out.
“We are a non-denominational, inter-faith organization, but we don’t proselytize or try to convert anyone,” Joe says. “I feel our actions are much louder than my words.”
Bikers serving their community
Not surprisingly, the stories the bikers encounter each Thursday night are many … some joyful, some heartbreaking, all memorable. Like the woman who broke down in tears after missing supper at a local shelter, telling the bikers she didn’t know where her next meal would come from. Or the two veterans who insisted on giving their share of food to their friends.
“We woke up a man living under a bridge and gave him food,” remembers Curt Carlson, a program manager at ISG, and one of Joe’s first recruits. “He was so thankful, and offered to give us his last $5 as a donation.”
Curt says UBFM-DM is a highlight of his week. “Delivering burritos to strangers is a bit like playing Santa Claus. But it’s more than that. It’s taking care of the needs of our neighbors in the community, particularly those most in need,” he says.
Volunteer Melinda Reese, a senior customer service representative for John Deere Financial in Johnston, Iowa, has been with Joe from the start. “Because of my faith, I know it’s important to serve others and I learn so much from them,” she says. “They know us on the streets now and it’s so awesome to hear not only of their struggles, but some of their successes, like finding housing or a job.”
With encouragement from the Memphis UBFM group, the Burrito Slingers recently applied for 501(c)(3) status and established a board of directors. Joe serves as CEO, Curt is secretary, and fellow ISG employee Pete Kiernan, is CFO.
It’s easier now to solicit donations, Joe says, adding many fellow John Deere employee volunteers have applied for matching gift grants from the John Deere Foundation.
Joe marvels at how far he and his fellow Burrito Slingers have come in just 15 months. “We’re letting it grow organically,” he says. “I hear from people who want to fundraise for us and say ‘Great! Have at it!’”