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Community Bikes Collected for the World

International Washington-area bicycle collection group receives Herndon help.

The bike — a bright purple one with the words "quick silver" written in blue sprayed across the top of its frame — lets out a few soft clicks from its wheels as a local volunteer of the Herndon Friend Meeting pulls it over toward a tool box.

"This bike here is a mountain bike, and it’s got a 24 inch wheel, so judging from that, I’d say this bike will probably go to Guatemala," said Keith Oberg, a tanned and bearded Arlington resident as he sizes up the newly-donated bicycle, lightly tapping a wrench against the heel of his hand. "It’s nice because you can look at each different type of bike, and based on how big it is, what kind of bike it is, you can find out where you can send it where it will work out the best."

He was one of approximately a dozen volunteers present at the Herndon Friends Meeting used bike collection in downtown Herndon on Sunday, July 22, a yearly event that looks to receive area bikes as donations to be sent to lesser-developed countries. Oberg is director of Bikes for the World, the non-profit project run through the Washington Area Bicyclists Association that was receiving the bikes to be sent to Africa and Latin America in the coming months.

Last week’s Herndon collection succeeded in collecting 115 bicycles in three hours from area residents and organizations, all of which were prepared to be shipped to Costa Rica, Gambia, Ghana, Guatemala, Panama and Uganda, according to Oberg and event organizer Paul Murphy.

They were just a part of about the 50 collections that have taken place and 5,000 bikes collected so far by other organizations in the region, Oberg added. By the end of the year, Bikes for the World estimates that they will once again break personal records for number of bikes collected, at more than 8,000 in more than 80 organized bike drives.

THE IDEA TO SHIP unused bikes abroad to provide people with cheap and easy transportation methods and in turn, economic self-sufficiency, began in Oberg’s work abroad for the U.S. government-financed Inter-American Foundation.

"I would notice that when I was traveling we would see micro-businesses selling things door-to-door, health programs in the country where nurses would literally walk to bring medical supplies to the countryside," said Oberg. "We quickly saw that giving them bikes could easily triple or quadruple their productivity."

After returning to the United States, Oberg found other like-minded people and other organizations already devoted towards sending bikes abroad. By 1995, he had begun his own collection branch in the Washington region.

The idea quickly proved to be successful as volunteers collected an increasing number of bikes each year, he added.

"The fact is that we’re so affluent as a country now, that a bike has become a throw-away item for some people," Oberg said. "But some people will save them, and that’s what we use to send out, and for the people in these countries, it’s amazing what they will do with them."

THE HERNDON FRIENDS Meeting was one of the first sponsors of a local bike depository event, according to Oberg. The nature and size of the community collection was a perfect fit for the modestly-sized faith-based group, Murphy said.

"Because we’re a little smaller in size, we look to smaller charitable organizations that can be easily managed for the highest impact," said Murphy, a Reston resident. "We can leverage an event like a bike collection into a tremendous amount of economic assistance."

The group, which has collected as many as 200 bicycles in one event, regularly receives several unclaimed bikes from the Herndon Police Department and other area organizations, he said. As more local bike collections have started up in the area in recent years, the collections have gotten a little lighter, Murphy added.

"As long as they’re being collected from somewhere, it’s good in my eyes," he said.

AFTER RECEIVING the bikes, volunteers and members of the Herndon Friends Meeting spent their afternoon removing the pedals and straighten the handlebars of the bike to make it as "linear" as possible and into the most compact shipping form, according to volunteers with the organizations. The bikes are then taken to a regional storage center where they are sorted and tagged for shipment via boat to multinational aid organizations in their countries of destination.

The foreign aid organizations will then distribute the bikes to local community members based on need of transportation to work or school or to someone looking to use a bike to start up a small business venture. Murphy has heard of the bikes beings used for such tasks as delivering medicines to isolated villages and starting mobile food vendor businesses.

And the benefits don’t stop where the bicycles are unloaded, he added.

"The work we do keeps bikes out of our landfills here, while at the same time, helping people to get new opportunities abroad," Murphy said.

HERNDON RESIDENT and government worker Paul Degutsis donated two bicycles to the collection for his first time after hearing about the event in an announcement made at Saint John Neumann Church mass earlier that morning.

"I’ve had these bikes for awhile, and I’d been looking to find some place where I could donate them, but I never saw anything nearby," Degutsis said. "It would have been a shame to throw these away, so to see that they can be rescued and brought somewhere where they could be used to improve someone’s life is a great thing."

More residents like Degutsis are exactly what the Herndon Friends Meeting and Bikes of the World needs to reach out to, said Murphy.

"I don’t think there’s any shortage of the bikes here in town," he said. "As long as there are kids and families in Herndon, there are plenty of opportunities here."