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Business with a Higher Purpose

By Sara Bongiorni
Lonnie Bickford drills wells, builds orphanages and repairs schools in some of the poorest places on Earth.

He built a basketball court and emergency shelter at a school in The Philippines and set up a sewing center that provides job training at a desert settlement in sub-Saharan Africa.

Lonnie and Jacci Bickford. | Photo by Tim Mueller
Lonnie and Jacci Bickford. | Photo by Tim Mueller

The Baker native’s hands-on humanitarian efforts are shaped by his Christian faith. Yearly visits to countries like Mozambique and Peru have given him an understanding of what the world’s worst poverty looks like. Bickford has watched mothers with babies on their hips fill 5-gallon buckets with water and balance them on their heads to begin miles-long treks across the desert of Mozambique.

Purchasing wheelchairs for disabled people in impoverished nations is a focus for Bickford because he has seen their few, desperate options for getting around. Someone can carry them, push them in a wheelbarrow or they can affix wheels to a board and propel themselves along the ground with their knuckles, he explained.

“For $50, you can buy someone a wheelchair and change their life,” said Bickford, who studied business at LSU.

His charitable endeavors touch close to home, too. He is working with the Baton Rouge Area Foundation to set up a donor-advised fund—his second Foundation fund—to help Louisiana children with autism, women battling breast cancer and disabled veterans.

Some projects are part local, part international.

A decade ago, a Baton Rouge friend set up a nonprofit called Business Without Borders to connect the resources of local business people with water projects and other needs in Africa and elsewhere. The friend, Kevin Sharp, has since moved to Texas, but he and Bickford continue to tackle humanitarian projects through Business Without Borders, mostly through their own donations of time and money.

““For $50, you can buy someone a wheelchair and change their life.””
An early project was the makeover and expansion of a house near Webb Park that was sold to raise money for relief efforts in post-quake Haiti. Bickford traveled to Haiti to ensure the money was used to optimal effect.

He’s been working on humanitarian projects around the world ever since.

Bickford is in the self-storage business. He owns multiple Appletree Storage locations in Baton Rouge. He also founded, an online self-storage auction site that operates out of the Louisiana Tech Park on Florida Boulevard.

Both enterprises provide essential funding to Bickford’s two funds at the Foundation.

A real estate donation was used to create his original fund, Storehouse28, which focuses on medical and water projects in Asia, Africa and South America.

The online auction business is fundamental to the new, second fund that will support cancer treatment, autism services, homes for injured veterans and other efforts. “The reason we started was to create another income stream that we could put toward another charitable fund,” Bickford said. has grown into the nation’s No. 2 provider of online auctions and made Bickford a popular speaker in the U.S. self-storage industry.

He will use that clout to encourage storage industry colleagues to join him in supporting charitable endeavors by dedicating a portion of their auction profits to the new fund.

Fortuitous and surprising connections supply additional meaning to Bickford’s personal, professional and humanitarian endeavors. Consider how he met his wife, Jacci, a career missionary who worked in 10 countries over 15 years. The couple came upon each other in Eswatini, then called Swaziland, where Jacci had lived and worked for several years.

They quickly discovered a shared tie to South Louisiana. Bickford knew the wife of a missionary running a relief operation in an African country from his days at Baker High School—a woman who was already a close friend of Jacci’s.

Bickford’s original fund at the Foundation, Storehouse 28, likewise has an unexpected tie to both his Baker youth and remote parts of Asia. About a year ago, the fund sponsored a seven-day surgical camp in the disputed territory of India’s Leh Valley.

After crossing harrowing terrain in a military-style convoy, the surgical team set up tents and worked from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. for a week to complete about 950 surgeries.

The Louisiana connection? A childhood friend of Bickford’s who grew up in Ethel is a missionary doctor at Lady Willingdon Hospital in Lahore, Pakistan, where the camp’s surgical team was based.

The remote hospital has special meaning for Bickford. During a visit years ago, he was taken aback to learn that its sole power source was a small diesel generator along the lines of what is available at Lowe’s.

The hospital bought a few gallons of diesel at a time to keep the generator running.

Bickford asked how they kept patients on life-support alive when the power failed. In such cases, he learned, a nurse remained by the patient’s bed and squeezed an oxygen pump by hand.

Bickford acquired a powerful Indian-made pump for Lady Willingdon. “That was very special,” he said.

The toughest experience was what Bickford witnessed in the desert near Matola, Mozambique. Poor families had been pushed out of the city into a makeshift camp to make way for a new soccer stadium, Bickford said.

Houses were mostly cane sticks and string. Some had tin roofs. Cars routinely bogged down in the sand. “Mozambique hit me hard,” Bickford said. “It was just so sad.”

Bickford worked with a Brazilian missionary at the camp to purchase sewing machines for a camp program to teach women to sew shirts and other garments to earn money for their families. The sewing program continues today. Bickford is working on a micro-loan-style mechanism to allow the women to buy their own sewing machines over time.

Years of work around the world has not diminished Jacci Bickford’s love of travel. In recent weeks, she was preparing for a pleasure-and-study trip to Israel, a place she has visited many times.

Lonnie Bickford mostly travels out of necessity rather than pleasure, although he is an avid hunter who has worked safaris into his trips to Africa and elsewhere.

The couple’s faith and humor are undiminished despite the hard things they have seen.

“We both love mountains and lakes,” Jacci Bickford noted.

“Which is why we live in a swamp,” her husband added.