Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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The lay of the land in Arlington includes a slew of bike paths, bike lanes, a bike sharing partnership with D.C., and a county board member named Jay Fisette who models transport protocol by publicly pursuing his goal of bicycling to work 52 times a year.

So it comes as no surprise that this two-wheeler culture would spawn one of the country’s most unusual youth charities.

If you drove I-66 this month you may have seen draped over one of the cross-over bridges a home-made banner reading “Wheels to Africa.” Since 2005, the organization founded by a boy who then was an Arlington fifth-grader has been soliciting donated bikes and delivering them to the neediest in isolated, car-less villages in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. There the conveyances are refurbished and ridden joyfully by health professionals, patients, students and teachers.

This Dec. 11, Wheels to Africa collected 782 and counting. The haul was its second highest, next to the 1,000 collected in 2008, for a total of some 3,500 over six years. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, an Arlingtonian, personally delivered two of this year’s donated vehicles.

Winston Duncan, now a 10th grader, got the idea for Wheels to Africa during a family drip to the continent, where he witnessed deprivation and a shortage of vital transportation options. Back home in Arlington, he began distributing flyers, and his CPA mom, Dixie Duncan, began running Wheels to Africa out of their north Arlington home.

Now Winston Duncan devotes his after-school hours to speaking about “Wheels’ to high school key clubs, honor societies and Girl Scout troops.

He is quite the networker. As recalled proudly by his mother, he met Secretary Duncan (no relation) two years ago during a pick-up basketball game at Thomas Jefferson Middle School. The kid had no inkling he was playing hoops with the nation’s top education official. The boy asked for some tips on shooting (the education secretary played college ball at Harvard), and a friendship was born.

When Arne Duncan showed up at Washington-Lee High School on this recent Saturday, he joined 242 volunteers who came to eight collection sites to help with processing and trucking, from middle and high schools in Arlington, McLean, Alexandria, and Kensington, Md.

The generosity flowed. Three young siblings gave the cause a new bike purchased with money they earned doing chores. Another tyke handed over his prized bike and shrewdly asked the volunteers at Yorktown High School to tell Santa to bring him a replacement.

Organizing such an unofficial form of foreign aid is no mean feat. More than half the donations are generated through personal contacts. “The shipping is the most difficult part of the collection,” says Dixie Duncan, “but it is the most rewarding.” Her team makes arrangements through the locally founded but Uganda-based nonprofit called the Arlington Academy of Hope. “We also have a Zimbabwe contact who is working with the embassy here to arrange shipping,” she says.

I asked whether it would be kinder to repair the bikes before sending them. “We do not refurbish the bikes here because the locals learn about bikes by refurbishing them,” she said. “We are trying to establish bike shops in the communities so the bikes can be repaired to last for years. The bike shops would also employ some of the local village members so everyone benefits.”

The spirit of donating one’s time has spread to other pursuits-Wheels to Africa next plans to collect and distribute shoes. And this coming July, Winston and some veteran high school volunteers are set to travel to Africa to work in a village. They also have more modest plans to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.

For Dixie Duncan, the operation’s roaring success has “gotten out of control. It’s way too big for my son,” she says. That’s why she’s seeking steady funding for the wheels her then-young son set in motion.

It takes commitment to separate an American kid from a bicycle.

 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]