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The World’s Wheels

Good Shepherd wants to put Mount Vernon’s unused bikes on Costa Rica’s roads.

In many countries in Africa or South America, sandy footpaths run between small fields of maize or sugarcane, connecting homes to one another and to small elementary schools. Larger roads, still dirt, connect small clusters of shops to a bustling central market. There is a health clinic in the market town, also a high school. From the town, it’s possible to take a taxi or a bus down a pot-holed road to a city with a hospital and a government office.

On most of these roads, donkeys and goats are more common than cars. In the mornings, children in bright school uniforms walk in chattering packs, increasing in number with each house they pass. Men walk to work. Women walk out into the fields, balancing a heavy hoe. In the afternoon the women will walk with machetes to collect firewood or with jerry-cans to collect water. In the evening of a market day, they walk home with their backs curved under sacks holding pounds of flour, rice, sugar, beans and other staples their families will need the next week.

In the city, there are bicycles for sale. Most are imported from China. Their chrome components and narrow tires are designed for the streets of Beijing, not the dust of the dirt paths. They usually cost $60 or $70, a steep price.

On Saturday, Sept. 30, Good Shepherd Catholic Church will collect bicycles for Bikes for the World. Last year, the organization, a project of the Washington Area Bicycle Association (WABA), collected 5,600 bikes in the metro area and shipped them to seven countries. This will be Good Shepherd’s seventh year collecting bikes, according to Mary Jane Masciola, the director of the church’s Social Justice Ministry. She said the church typically collects between 150 and 300 bikes. Last year the bikes went to Ghana; this year they will go to Costa Rica. “The possibilities of a bike in the hands of someone in a third-world country is enormous,” Masciola said. “More than I think we in this country realize.” She cited children who ride their bikes to distant schools and farmers who carry their produce to market.

“We get everything from children’s little two-wheelers all the way up to very expensive multi-speed bikes,” she added. The only condition is that broken bikes must be reparable. Steve Gravini, a Good Shepherd parishioner and WABA member who has helped coordinate the collection since its inception, said that even decrepit bikes that haven’t been ridden for 40 years can be stripped for parts to repair others. “I’ve always been interested in their mission because I see a lot of bicycles that are just thrown away in the trash, and I just think, ‘Why waste that? It’s a good resource,’” he said.

The equation is appealing: carry bikes from a place where there are not wanted to a place where they can change lives. “I rarely come across something that seems to work this well,” Masciola said.

IT IS KEITH OBERG’S JOB to make that equation add up, and he appreciates just how complicated the math of charitable aid can be. Trying to help others creates unintended consequences. Flooding an area with free bikes may mean local entrepreneurs in the same market are put out of business. Sending foreign bicycles to villages with no repair shop and no spare parts may mean a few weeks in which fetching the day’s water takes one hour instead of three, but when an axle cracks or a pedal gets bent, the bike becomes a lawn ornament.

“It’s complex,” Oberg said. “That’s something that people who are donating a bike and collecting bikes don’t always appreciate.” He said Bikes for the World never moves into a new country without establishing a relationship with a reliable partner in that country.

They must be willing to sell the bikes honestly at a low price (usually $10 to $20), use some of the proceeds to train mechanics to maintain the bikes and be willing to give discounts to people that strengthen their communities, like mobile health workers.

As for the economics of the situation, Oberg said he believes his organization “primes the pump” for a larger bicycle market, creating a demand for reasonably priced bikes that only local entrepreneurs can fill. “We see ourselves very much as helping to move some of these countries from low-volume, high-margin to high-volume, low-margin consumer sales [of bikes].”

“By selling the bike you are ensuring the bike will be used productively. If the bike were given away, the program would be limited to subsidizing a few people. Charity is very complex. We’re trying to focus on something that’s overlooked by people in our car-crazy country and the elites in third world countries who look at bikes as maybe backward and not the future. How do you help people right here and now? Help people become more productive? Providing a bike is an immediate solution.”

“People benefit in proportion to the use of the bike, to their own efforts. It’s not a handout.”

THE BIKES Good Shepherd collects this year will go to the Costa Rican group FINCA, Fundacion Integral Compecina, a 20-year-old micro-credit program that provides savings and loan services to subsistence farming families in rural areas outside the country’s central valley. For their clients, bicycles are an investment in productivity. For instance, FINCA told Oberg of a male client who sold baked goods and popsicles to construction sites. He borrowed $10 to buy a bicycle, intending to pay the money back over four weeks. The bicycle allowed him to visit so many more construction sites each day that he was able to pay off the loan in only two weeks.

“Part of Catholic social teaching includes solidarity with the global population,” Masciola said. “I see this as a small part we can play in touching our brothers and sisters in third world countries and extending a helping hand to them.”

And Gravini believes Americans can learn from their brothers and sisters. He does not own a car and uses his bike to commute to work in Old Town and take his children to school. He said if more people followed suit, “it would relieve a lot of stress, and the traffic nightmares and it would make people a lot more pleasant too.”