When Yana Ibrasheva arrived on Nantucket after traveling halfway around the world from Kazakhstan, one of her biggest questions was how she was going to get to work.
“One of the most important things on this island is transportation,” said Ibrasheva, who is working at Jack & Charlie's ice cream shop and the Brotherhood of Thieves this summer.
And transportation isn’t easy to come by. Ibrasheva, visiting the United States on a J1, or exchange student visa, couldn’t afford to buy a bicycle on island, and Nantucket’s buses often run late, which could mean arriving to work late as well.
But then, one of her colleagues told her about St. Paul’s church.
Over the last several summers, St. Paul’s church has shared bicycles with the island’s J1 visa students completely free of charge, a sort of bicycle lending library that has quadrupled in size since it began. Today, St Paul’s has 40 bicycles, all of them in circulation, and a waitlist of another 10 students.
“We’re still trying to get bicycles,” the Rev. Max Wolf, St Paul’s priest, said.
For the students, the program is life-changing.
“For me, it was just a really, really good opportunity to take. It was just unbelievable that someone could give me a bike for the whole summer just for free,” Ibrasheva said. “[My colleagues and I] are living two miles from our job, and for us, our lives became so much easier with bicycles. We are using them every day, going to our job, going to the beach, going to any place on-island.”
Cvita Banic, another student who received a bike through the program, agreed.
“It impacted me so much because now I can go wherever I want,” said Banic, who is working at Stop & Shop this summer. “I'm very thankful for Fr. Max and his church. He doesn't want anything in return.”
Emry Kechagia had much the same experience.
“It really made our lives easier,” he said. “It doesn't really matter where you’re from or what your beliefs are. They just gave us the bikes.”
Most of the students didn’t hear about the program from St Paul’s. Instead, they heard from colleagues and roommates who had borrowed a bicycle before, an informal network spreading word of the program across the island.
Banic, visiting the island from Croatia, is one of the central nodes of that network—though she never really meant to be. She has referred more than half a dozen students to the church, including all of her roommates.
“All of our house has a bike now,” she laughed.
The program doesn’t just provide bicycles. Sheriff Jim Perelman supplies helmets and locks to the students, and St. Paul’s verger Curtis Barnes supplies lights. St. Paul’s also gives the students tips for riding at night and safety advice.
“We try to keep them safe,” Wolf said.
Over the winter, St. Paul’s stores the bicycles, and many students come back the next summer and request the same bike.
“I am planning to come again next summer, and, of course, I will come to St. Paul’s church,” Ibrasheva said.
For St. Paul’s, the program is a good way to help the students feel welcome on-island and foster a sense of community. But it’s more than that, as well.
“Maybe most importantly it’s a form of diplomacy,” Wolf said. “There could be some confusion internationally about who we are.”
If it’s meant to be diplomacy, it’s working.
“We’ve received texts from parents in foreign countries saying thank you,” Wolf said. “We’ve even received gifts from Ireland from people thanking us.”
Wolf’s one regret is the waiting list. St. Paul’s is accepting donations for the program and hopes to expand it to cover all J1 visa students who want a bicycle.