I organized a used-bicycle drive last May. I put up fliers and sent out letters to newspapers, radio stations, schools and churches. A local bike shop agreed to give a discount coupon to anyone who donated. I asked some friends to help with repairs and got some stores to contribute raffle items to raise money for transportation and parts. My ethics teacher, Sister Seton, arranged for the bikes to go to the Red Cloud Reservation in South Dakota and to the Perry School in Northwest Washington.

By 9:30 on a Saturday morning, I had collected nearly 50 bikes -- road bikes, tricycles, mountain bikes. Some were in good condition; some were good only for parts. When I heard parents talking about "the poor" as their kids waved goodbye to outgrown tricycles, I realized I had a college essay here -- something about charity.

Then a family in a big van pulled up. The father had one of my fliers.

"So," he said. "I get a discount coupon for each donation?"

"Sure," I said.

He told his wife and children to unload his donations. One child brought out a rusted handlebar, another an old bike. His wife carried out the back half of a Big Wheel.

"That's three discounts," the man said. Then he went to the van and extracted a sorry-looking pile of deflated bike tires and bent rims. He grinned.

"That's four."

Something about charity, I thought.

By 5 p.m. I had more than 150 bikes. I was just about to take down my signs when another car pulled up and a middle-age couple got out. They unloaded a beautiful Diamondback bike.

"This is the best bike we've gotten all day," I told the woman.

She said that it had been her son's but that he had died of leukemia before he could ride it. They had kept the bike for a year, the woman said, not knowing what to do with it until they saw my flier.

When we were putting the bikes away, I didn't ride the Diamondback to the storage bin. I carried it. Something about charity.

A few days later, I delivered 35 bikes to the Perry School. As I pulled into the parking lot, a group of workers appeared and quickly unloaded the bikes and carried them inside. I had brought a camera to take a photo of the kids with the bikes, but no kids were around. I never saw who got the Diamondback.

A week later, Sister Seton learned that Red Cloud didn't want the bikes. She was told that unless we could supply one for every child on the reservation, the bikes would only cause trouble. But Sister Seton said a parish downtown could use some.

So I loaded up the bikes and drove down Malcolm X Boulevard. A crowd of kids stared as I backed the van into a loading dock. A priest came out, and the kids swarmed around. As we began unloading the bikes, the kids asked if they could have one. The harried priest told them gently, "They're not yours."

Then a small girl with pigtails stepped onto the truck bed. She grabbed a bike by its handlebars. "This bike's tight," she said.

Before I knew it, she was out of the truck with the bike and halfway down the street. Then another kid rode off on another bike, and then another.

The priest was pushing away grabbing hands, trying to keep more bikes from being stolen before they could be given away.

As I watched the kids -- poor kids -- disappear around corners with the stolen, donated bikes, I thought my college essay would have to begin with something like this:

Charity is not a simple thing.

-- William Armstrong