For years, he’s given bicycles to people in need, beginning in Africa

|     Tara Bahrampour     |

WASHINGTON (The Washington Post) – In 2005, Winston Duncan was travelling with his mother in southern Africa when he saw an old woman and a young boy walking down a road together. He thought of his own grandmother, who used an oxygen tank, and wondered how he could help the woman and others he had seen enduring long walks in Africa.

Duncan, who lived in Arlington, Virginia, was 10 at the time, and his solution was to give them bikes.

Unlike most 10-year-olds with crazy ideas, he actually did it. With his mom, he started Wheels to Africa, an organisation that for the past 14 years has taken bicycles donated from residents of the Washington metropolitan area and shipped them across the world to people in need.

Most of the 8,000 bikes they have collected have gone to countries in Africa, helping cut down hours of walking for students and other recipients. But last week, Duncan, now 24, and his mother, Dixie Duncan, travelled with a handful of volunteers and 400 bikes to a destination much closer to home yet still in dire need: Puerto Rico.

More than a year after it was devastated by Hurricane Maria, the island suffers from infrastructure and transportation problems, said Dixie Duncan. “They’re American citizens, and I personally felt like we need to do what we can to help.”

A student from the Ines Maria Mendoza School in Puerto Rico tries out his new bike. – THE WASHINGTON POST

Wheels to Africa teamed up with a Puerto Rican organisation, the JJ Barea Foundation, to organise recipients among local schools, orphanages and others.

There were some logistical glitches. After arriving on Tuesday, the group was told that the shipping container with the bikes was late, and that it would cost far more than the agreed-upon USD6,000. When they finally sorted it out, it was Thursday evening and they had only two nights and a day to reassemble and fine-tune all the bikes before the giveaway. For 16 hours on Friday, members of the group attached pedals and pumped tires, helped for part of that time by 30 or so local high school students.

On Saturday, local non-profits and dozens of recipients from around the island showed up. After listening to a talk on bike safety, they were matched with bikes and donated helmets.

“It was a little chaotic – as soon as they got their bikes, they were just having fun riding around the parking lot,” said Austin Higgins, a New Jersey resident who recently joined Wheels to Africa as its photographer and videographer. Some recipients were “a little bit overwhelmed, almost speechless,” he said.

The donated bikes included some high-end racing models, which went to teenagers interested in pursuing serious cycling.

The sight was familiar to Brian Babilonia, 24, a cyclist who represented Puerto Rico at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. As a child, Babilonia did not have enough money to buy a bicycle.

“I was one of them,” he recalled. “At the beginning I didn’t have any gear. People helped me with a helmet and parts so I could (make) my own bike. A few people donated the frame, the wheels.”

One pressing issue in Puerto Rico is promoting education of bike safety among riders and also among drivers. “People in Puerto Rico are not very experienced with bicycles and not very aware of them,” Babilonia said. “The cars think they are the owner of the road.” Local activists are pushing for more bike lanes and posting fliers reminding drivers to leave three feet of space for cyclists, he said. “I hope that one day the road will be very, very good for cyclists.”

Alex Wolz, a Wheels to Africa board member who grew up with Duncan and joined the trip, was struck by how happy the kids were to receive the bikes. “One little boy said, ‘Oh, I want a red bike.’ I picked a red bike off the pile and I brought it over and he just looked at the bike and his jaw dropped,” Wolz said.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen this spirit of community and desire to help your community as I’ve experienced in Puerto Rico,” Wolz said. Particularly since the hurricane, “there is a feeling that you help people, you don’t hoard food, and you don’t turn inward. You look around to see how you can help.”