By Claudia Mathis
Bob Birchmyer, a former resident of homeless shelters, is the happiest he’s been in a long time. He now has a place to hang his hat, a real home. He has lived in The Possibilities Home on Midland Avenue in Syracuse for the last month. “It’s the best experience I’ve had in the last five years,” enthused Birchmyer.
The upturn in his fortune came about after he graduated from the Pedal to Possibilities Program, which is designed to provide homeless people with incentive, exercise and invaluable fellowship. The program, which is hosted by the Brady Faith Center in Syracuse and run by Andrew Lunetta, supplies homeless people with bicycles and helmets so that they can take part in organized bicycle rides around the city’s South side/Valley section. Those who complete 10 rides are given a bicycle, helmet and a lock. Many of them depend on the Rescue Mission and the Oxford Inn for shelter.
It was through participating in the biking program that Birchmyer met Lunetta, the young man who changed the direction of his life.
As a graduate of Le Moyne College, Lunetta has followed the Jesuit tradition of helping those who are less fortunate. He’s worked at the Oxford Inn for the last two years.
Last summer, Lunetta and his girlfriend, Anna Kozachuk, traveled 3,200 miles by bicycle across the country. They raised $5,000 for the Brady Faith Center.
“The Brady Faith Center is a place that fosters my passion,” said Lunetta. “The spirit and general atmosphere there is so positive. The people in that area need that kind of love.”
During the bicycle trip, Lunetta realized how strong his commitment was to helping the less fortunate.
“The farther west I traveled, I realized how passionate I am about my ministry in Syracuse,” he said. “And, I realized how much I missed and loved Syracuse and my work.”
Lunetta said that he and Kozachuk rode for 63 days, averaging 70 miles each day. They pedaled through a lot of rain and camped out most nights. Kozachuk’s bicycle had two flat tires on the trip.
Upon his return to Syracuse, Lunetta leased a large five-bedroom home with the intention of sharing it with some homeless men who had graduated from the biking program and who he felt were ready to move out of the shelters. He opened his home on Midland Avenue to Birchmyer and three other homeless men who had graduated from the biking program.
Lunetta described the method he used to determine which men he thought were ready to take such a monumental leap. First and foremost, he chose men who were drug-free and sober. “By getting to know them through the bicycling program, I got to know their intentions, those who had an air of responsibility and who were ready to use their talents,” Lunetta explained.
Lunetta said that the men have been utilizing their skills in maintaining the older home they now live in. “They are incredibly talented and I’m learning things from them,” said Lunetta.
“The guys need structure,” stated Lunetta. He enforces certain rules in the house to ensure a safe environment for all. The men are expected to maintain a clean environment, no overnight guests are allowed and everyone is expected to cook and eat dinner together.
“Last night they were on cloud nine,” Lunetta said. “We had a special guest for dinner and we made pizza. “It’s really cool to see people who haven’t had this connection to now have it — it’s something I’ve taken for granted all my life.”
Lunetta recalled that as a child, the belief that everyone was a member of his family was instilled in him. “My mother is a huge role model for me,” he said. “From a young age, I’ve seen her host kids from the Fresh Air Fund, work in soup kitchens, work at the Dorothy Day House and she is now a special education teacher.”
Lunetta hopes to provide a loving, supportive home to the homeless. “My hope is that the residents find ways to utilize their talents, find employment, volunteer and reconnect with their families,” he said.
The men are volunteering at the Brady Bread bakery at St. Vincent de Paul’s Church in Syracuse. It was formerly the Glory Bee bakery, which closed two years ago. Currently, 30 loaves of bread are made there each week and are then sold to local parishes. The proceeds are distributed to the Brady Faith Center, jail ministry and the bicycle program.
Not only does Birchmyer help out at the bakery, he also helps Lunetta repair bicycles for the bike program. “The bike program has been a lot of fun,” remarked Birchmyer. “I’ve lost 50 pounds and lowered my cholesterol. I love my life now. I feel very positive.”
That wasn’t always the case for Birchmyer. Before arriving at The Possibilities Home, he had taken shelter at the Oxford Inn.
“Before,” Birchmyer said, “I went to bed at night asking Him not to let me be awake in the morning. Now, I’m happy, safe, secure, sober and uplifted. It’s the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time. I hope that the program stays in existence for a long time and that a lot more guys get help.”