Bikers with Beliefs

Aug. 19-Sept. 1,2004
Bikers with Beliefs
By Kristen Fox / SUN  Staff Writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Teens Combine Bicycle Trip with Faith and Service

Over 30 teenagers had an opportunity to help others during a 125-mile bike tour through Central New York. The annual tour, which was organized by Joe McDonald, youth minister at St. Patrick’s Church in Whitney Point, was held from July 31 – Aug. 7. The week-long ride began at St. Stephen’s Church in Marathon, with stops in Cortland, Alverna Heights and Cross Lake. “The bike ride helps students to gain a better acceptance of the reality that God is in their lives,” explained McDonald. Each year, he chooses a different service component that coincides with the bike route. “We try to look at the community we are in to see what kind of help is needed and we go from there,” he said.

This year, McDonald was connected with Elderly Services, a division of Catholic Charities of Onondaga County, through John Doughty, coordinator of youth ministry at St. Joseph the Worker Church in Liverpool. With help from Elderly Services, the students were hooked up with senior citizens in need of assistance with household chores, such as painting, lawn-mowing and cleaning. The 33 students were divided into six groups. Each group spent one day of the bike tour volunteering at a different home. “My favorite part about the trip is helping people I have never met,” said Mario Brooks, 14, a parishioner of St. Patrick’s Church in Whitney Point, as he pulled weeds from the front yard of Margaret Bean’s Syracuse home.

Bean, who is in her 70s, was one person whom a group of students were helping. She heard about the bike tour through her work as a receptionist at Catholic Charities. “They said there was a group of boys willing to do work and asked me if there was anything that I needed done,” Bean said. “I had two decks that need painting.” Bean, who lives alone, said that the students were a great source of help. “This is a godsend,” she said. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this.” During their time at Bean’s house, the young men found time to break away from their painting and weed pulling to hear a little bit about Bean’s life. A widow and mother of eight, Bean explained that her grown children are scattered throughout the U.S. –– from Oklahoma to Colorado. She then brought out a picture of one of her sons, Thomas Togni, who recently retired after serving 32 years as chief master sergeant on Air Force One. “He gave President [Bill] Clinton his last ride on Air Force One,” Bean said, to the students’ amazement.

“That’s awesome,” replied Chris Coy, 17, a parishioner of St. Paul’s Church in Webster. “You don’t hear things like that every day.” According to McDonald, interacting with the people at the sites is one of the highlights of the bike tour. “The volunteer experience gives them a chance to learn a little bit about the people they are helping,” he said. “I want the kids to hear their stories.” Following the day’s activities, the students return to the site where they have set up camp for the night. After dinner, which is prepared by volunteers who have joined the trip as the “cooking crew,” students gather around a campfire to talk about the day. They sing faith-filled songs and share their thoughts on faith.

“This is the most important part of the whole experience,” explained McDonald. “We talk about the meaning of the things that we have done. They learn how God fits into their plans.” He added that several adults who also participate in the trip facilitate discussions and share their own faith experiences. Life is like a bike ride, remarked McDonald. “There are ups and downs,” he said. “The bike ride is a great example of life’s journey.” Chris said that he enjoys gathering around the campfire. “It is inexplicably fun,” he said. “You share about your faith, but at the same time you are learning about each other.” This is his fourth time participating in the tour. Chris and his father traveled from Webster, which is located just outisde of Rochester, to meet up with the rest of the group in Syracuse. “It is something that is important to me,” said Chris. “I don’t mind coming here from Rochester because I enjoy it so much.”

Many students have come back to the bike tour year after year. This was Mario’s fourth trip. He admitted that at first he had some reservations about biking and service, but he found that it was worthwhile. “When I first heard about it, it didn’t sound like that much fun. I went anyways,” he said. “I had such a good time that I didn’t want to go home on the last day.” McDonald said that it is primarily by word of mouth that the bike tour has grown. “We really don’t do any advertising,” he said. The trip has grown so much in the past eight years that this year McDonald was forced to limit the number of students who could participate. “We had 63 students last year,” he said, “and the personal touch was lost. This year we had to limit it to around 30 kids. But it’s great that so many kids want to spend a part of their summer helping others.”

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