- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 19, 2014

PITTSBURG, Kan. (AP) - In a basement workshop across the street from Pittsburg State University, Don Smith has been solving the transportation challenges of international students for 30 years.

The workshop shows it: One wall is lined with tools, another with trinkets and maps and photographs from far-away lands.

PSU has an international student population of 469, representing 37 countries and every continent except Antarctica. Some stay for a semester, some for a year or more, The Joplin Globe reported (https://bit.ly/MWL6rK ).

“Their challenge is getting around here. Most don’t have cars,” Smith said as he installed new brake cables on a bicycle intended for one of four visiting scholars from China.

The four, Manqian Wu, Zhiwei Wang, Zhenbo Wang and Shi Wu, are researching and observing at the Kansas Technology Center this semester. They live at an off-campus apartment complex a mile southeast of the center, and the core campus is west of the center.

To solve such challenges, Smith, who has for more than three decades served as a minister at Campus Christians, was inspired by a loaner bike program offered by a similar group at the University of Missouri.

“I thought we could do that,” Smith said. “But the first year, not one bike came back. Not one.”

Part of the problem, he found, was that a thief wielding a pair of bolt cutters can cut through cheap locks easily, so some bikes were stolen.

“Another was that students didn’t heed my advice to lock them up. And others simply were busy getting ready to graduate or move on after college and they didn’t return them.”

He began imposing a deposit, which is now $35 for the bike and $10 for a basket, and has had more success in getting bikes returned at the end of a semester or a year.

Since July 1, he’s loaned 200 bikes. Of the 25 percent or so that won’t be returned, Smith said he isn’t worried.

“That’s just part of the nature of it.” he said, “I see it as still making a difference.”

Not all of the students who borrow bikes are international, Smith noted.

“A growing number of American students come here after learning about it from an international friend,” he said.

Some of them are athletes, including PSU football players, who would like to bike for exercise or to quickly get back and forth from a campus that has extended farther east in recent years.

Others are seeking a more economical means of transportation that also solves another problem on campus: the lack of parking.

The bike loaner program is self-supporting through the deposits - many of which are not returned to students because bikes aren’t returned, either - and through donations of money and bikes from community members.

A local family, for example, just donated seven bikes that were outgrown or no longer needed. All but one already are in service.

The Chinese contingent said they appreciate Smith’s efforts to not only provide them with bikes, but the time and care he took to make adjustments and ensure they are in good working order.

“It’s a nice thing,” Manqian Wu said.

Smith said it underscores his “very simple philosophy of life.”

“Love God, and love others,” he said.

“Or you can substitute the word ‘care’ for love if you like. Either way, I believe doing what you can to help others is a way to say we care. Maybe they leave here and encounter someone else they can help and they’ll pass it on. It’s planting a seed, maybe.”

Smith said it also serves as an opportunity to share with students spiritually.

“If they are interested, that is. If they aren’t, that’s fine, too.”

He’s made many friendships with the students, many who have given him in appreciation token gifts from their countries, which Smith then displays in his workshop. One of the most gratifying, he said, was a calendar from a Taiwanese couple. It features a photo of their young daughter, to whom they gave the middle name, “Smith,” in his honor.

Upon checking out each bike, Don Smith gives students a brief bicycle safety quiz and ensures they know which routes in the area are less heavily traveled by motor vehicles. Whenever a bike is no longer road-worthy, Smith strips it for parts to be used to repair others, then sells the frame to a Webb City scrap metal collector.

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