An old, slightly used bicycle that's stored under the basement steps is just the thing Keith Oberg is looking for.
The founder of Bikes For the World, Oberg sees unwanted bikes the same way a child does: filled with hope and joy at the chance for a little more mobility and freedom.
"Our primary mission is to get useful bicycles to people who need them," he said.
Bikes of the World is a non-profit group from Arlington that sponsors several bicycle recycling programs throughout the county over the course of a year. The bicycles are donated, packed up into a large shipping crate and transported overseas, where they are fixed, if needed, and distributed to people who can use them as transportation to jobs.
"We are a throw-away society," Oberg said. When people buy new bikes, the question of how to dispose of the old one can lead to a glut of metal, rubber and reflectors in landfills.
Oberg started collecting bikes in 1995 as part of an outreach program with a group of environmentalists in Arlington. Soon he joined up with Pedals for Progress, a Washington based organization that collected bicycles to be recycled and distributed to groups both in the Washington area and internationally.
"The bicycle is an unusual commodity in that it has an emotional tie for a lot of people, but it's also a productive asset for people in developing countries that don't have access to cars like we do," he said. "There is a need and an obvious use for these bikes."
ON SUNDAY, April 9, Oberg and his volunteers will be at St. Andrew the Apostle Catholic Church in Clifton, collecting bikes to be sent to Costa Rica. It is one of seven collection points that weekend, including Trinity United Methodist Church in Alexandria and the Hudson Trail Outfitters locations in Fairfax and Arlington, both on Saturday, April 8.
Bikes for the World collected and shipped over 6,000 bicycles last year alone, Oberg said, which "is a drop in the bucket when you think of how many bikes there are in this area."
Something as simple as owning a bicycle can dramatically improve the life of someone in a developing nation, he said. For example, a child who may not have attended school because it wasn't within walking distance may be able to get and education if he or she has a bicycle.
Not all of the bicycles are simply handed over to new owners, he said.
"For people who have income and will make more because of having a bike, we want them to pay something, whether up front or in trade," Oberg said.
Some bicycles are made available to students, both as a reward for earning good grades but also as incentive to continue their education, he said.
Due to the increasing costs of shipping crates full of bicycles overseas, Oberg said a $10 donation is suggested for each bicycle to help defray costs.
"We are a registered non-profit organization, so the donations of the bike and cash are tax-deductible," he said.
MORE THAN 1,200 bicycles have already been shipped this year, which puts Bikes for the World on pace to have its busiest and most successful year in its short history, Oberg said.
When Oberg was working with Pedals for Progress 11 years ago, he met with Reston resident Paul Murphy who has since enlisted the help of his church in Herndon to collect bicycles.
"Keith has grown his operation quite a bit," said Murphy.
His Quaker meeting has only about 150 members total, so when Murphy was looking for a community service organization to work with, he wanted to find one for which their numbers would provide a stronger presence.
"This was great way to go. They encompass the beliefs we espouse, of community involvement, relief efforts overseas, environmental stewardship and providing non-polluting forms of transportation," Murphy said. "It's taking tons and tons of metal out of the waste stream and helping people out."
The economic impact of a single bicycle can be astounding, Murphy said, and multiplied by hundreds of bicycles, can be a good way to make a "real, positive difference" in a community.
"This isn't just a material need we're providing," he said. "We're helping to stimulate the economies in parts of the world that really need the help."
Bicycles are one of the first ways for people to gain a "real sense of autonomy," said St. Andrews' parishioner Jeff Hunter, a member of the Knights of Columbus that is working in conjunction with Bikes for the World during the drive.
"When you get onto a bike, you're not encumbered by having to stop and get gas to go somewhere. You are fully responsible for where you go and how you get there."
Last year, Bikes for the World collected 90 bicycles at St. Andrews, Hunter said. "We were out there all day, collecting the bikes, then turning down their handles and packing them into the crate."
Recycling bicycles has its obvious environmental perks, which is why Fairfax County has created a kind of partnership with Bikes for the World, said Carol Swift, a management analyst for the county's Division of Solid Waste Control and Recycling.
"We try to recycle and reuse as many things as possible," she said. "Any way we can find to do that, we're more than happy to do."
The county has partnerships with organizations that hold computer recycling drives as well, she said.