The organization started with a little boy’s generous idea. Why not donate all the used bikes lying abandoned in suburban Washington to kids in Africa who have to walk miles to school?
Seven years later, Winston Duncan is 18, and Wheels to Africa is still hard at it, collecting bikes this Saturday from Bethesda to Alexandria. But as anyone who has tried to make a dream come true can attest, it’s a long way from an idea to an accomplishment.
“It is overwhelming sometimes,” said Dixie Duncan, Winston’s mom, a single parent and tax accountant from south Arlington who runs the nonprofit effort. “We have a lot of adults who have been doing this with us, and that gives me hope. It’s still very, very difficult.”
After collecting the bikes, Wheels to Africa is dependent on other nonprofits, preferably operating in Africa, to cover the considerable costs associated with shipping, import duties and inland transportation, often through multiple countries.
“Getting the bikes is the easy part,” said Richard Hubbell, a former Foreign Service official who is volunteering this year to oversee the delivery of the bikes from two African ports to the village of Mayom in South Sudan. “It’s a lot more complicated than people think — it’s not like shipping to anywhere else in the world.”
Wheels to Africa is such a small nonprofit that it is not even required to file full financial statements with the Internal Revenue Service. Its board chairman calls it a “shoestring nonprofit,” relying on volunteer part-time labor to organize the annual collection, disassemble and pack the bikes in containers, and store the cargo until it’s ready to ship.
Several former partners, reluctant to criticize a charity with such noble intentions, question whether the job is too big for what is essentially a handful of volunteers. The bikes donated to Wheels to Africa can end up costing other groups time and money.
“They have offered us bicycles because we work in Uganda, where there is a great need for bicycles,” said John Wanda, founder of the Arlington Academy of Hope. “We would have to work together to organize the shipping, particularly that last-mile shipping from the docks to the community. We are not yet in a position to pay for it.”
Dixie Duncan concedes that some of the bikes her organization has collected have never made it to Africa because of broken promises from some partners. But the bikes collected, she said, have gone to people in need. “We sent some to Haiti, some to Kenya and some to Fairfax County, where a woman I know refurbishes them and gives them to needy kids in Alexandria,” she said. “Others ended up going to Honduras.”
Hundreds and hundreds more, she said, have made their way to Africa, where they have been used by people who sorely need basic transportation to school, stores, work and medical clinics.
“The biggest challenge is working with different organizations,” she said. “We’ve always tried to partner with someone” who could deliver the bikes because she does not have the money to accompany the shipment herself.
Wheels to Africa started when Winston Duncan visited southern Africa with his mother in August 2005 and noticed the long walks that many Africans endured to get around. One elderly woman reminded him of his grandmother, whose movement was restricted by an oxygen tank, and that inspired him to start his first bike-collection drive.
“We’re not a big charity. . . . We collect bikes. We’re trying to do everything the right way,” said the Washington-Lee High School senior.
The nonprofit’s volunteer ranks are full of former Peace Corps volunteers and Agency for International Development employees, his mother said, and many foreign aid workers are among those who show up at the annual bike collection to help and to offer contacts.
The Wheels board, which meets once a year, is filled with friends who are former foreign aid workers. The board chairman and board members include people who work for a variety of Washington-based nonprofits, a businessman who owns several parking lots in the District, and a former congressional staffer and lobbyist.
Others who have worked with Wheels to Africa attest to its good works, although the difficulty and cost of paying for shipping and delivery have stopped several partnerships, including those with groups that Wheels identifies as friends or partners.
The first year, more than 200 bikes were donated, and over the years, the Duncans have reported thousands of bicycle donations. This year, Winston Duncan wants to send the donations to the South Sudan home town of his basketball buddy, Deng Juac. Juac, 21, fled his home and spent six months in refugee camps.
With Juac’s help, the Duncans are trying to work through diplomatic channels to qualify their bikes for a Defense Department program that will ship the bikes for free.
Duncan hopes that this year she and her son will be able to go with the bike shipment to South Sudan. Hubbell, who has been working on securing government documents and African partnerships, said they hope to videorecord the journey to document the delivery. The Duncans will be soliciting monetary donations for shipping costs this weekend in case the Defense Department application does not work out.
“We’re trying to raise $15,000,” she said. “If we raise that kind of money and we don’t use it, we could give it to the town to build a primary school.”
Bikes will be collected from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the following locations: Washington-Lee High School, Yorktown High School and Swanson Middle School in Arlington; T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria; Bethesda Elementary School in Bethesda; George Mason High School in Falls Church; James Madison High School in Vienna; and at the Pizza Hut at Route 236 and Prosperity Avenue in Fairfax.