Friday, January 31, 2014

Homes of Hope/More Than Sport

This week is one of planes and trains for me. So to make the time pass a bit faster, I’ll do some typing. A story that has been nagging me is that of my trip to Mexico last fall. Cycling has led to the coolest experiences of my life. The top two: racing through the heart of Florence past the Duomo in the World Championships, and building a home in Tijuana. It was truly a disservice to the experience to only give it one paragraph in my 2013 summary.

First, some background. I don’t speak of it much, because really, I don’t speak all that much anyways, but my whole family shares a strong Christian faith. I was raised in the church and my faith is still very important to me, even more so since my dad’s Stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis in2010 as a never-smoker.  My parents also raised me to always give a tithe to the church, something that certainly isn’t easy as a broke bike racer. In practice, I spread my donations around to charities and ministries that I feel a connection to. 

Regardless of the recipient of donations, though, simply giving money is never as fulfilling as giving time and effort. Sometimes it just feels lazy to click the ‘donate’ button. And that’s where the other half of this backstory comes in.

I met Guy East at the Optum-KBS team launch last year, and sometime later we connected on Facebook. My profile says that I am Christian, and so is Guy. He put me in touch with Todd Henriksen, a friend who travels the country to bike races to lead a small-but-growing ministry to professional cyclists—seeing as ours is a weekend sport, church attendance is a near impossibility for most of the year.

I finally met Todd at USPRO National Championships last year, and ever since have been involved with the Athletes in Action ministry, through which I met Ben King (with whom I now share an apartment in Italy).

Now then, how it all comes together: Guy has been living in Tijuana, Mexico for a few years and has coordinated a few home builds as part of the Homes of Hope and More Than Sport charities. While planning the 2013 build, he and Todd were sending out invitations, and I got one. I knew immediately that I wanted to go, I just had to make it happen, as it would not be a cheap trip for a domestic pro. Wouldn’t you know it, I had the bare minimum of frequent flier miles to make the trip! All that time flying around the world has paid off.

I made the flight to San Diego, where I was picked up by Guy as we waited for the rest of our group to be assembled. Optum was well-represented with me, Jesse Anthony, and Bob Gregorio. We were joined by several other cyclists, some from AIA, as well as Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson.

With the group complete, we piled in the vans and got to know each other as we drove into Mexico. Guy was our tour guide, telling us about the sad state of Tijuana and the unseen results of illegal immigration; most of the illegal aliens caught in the US are returned to Tijuana with no money regardless of where they are actually from, resulting in ‘tent city’, a hopeless place filled with people with no ability to leave. Then there’s the sex and organ and drug trafficking problems. All of this within shouting distance of the US.

But the good news was that we would be helping a family in need. We arrived at the Youth With A Mission campus, complete with dorm rooms, a soccer field, and aquaponics greenhouses to grow the facility’s own safe vegetables.

The sunset our first night in Tijuana
The campus in daylight
We spent the afternoon throwing the Frisbee around as our team bonded, then played soccer under the lights after a delicious dinner. Work would start early the following morning.

Todd wonders how many times I can get juked in 5 minutes
After an early breakfast, we watched the obligatory safety films and were given more details about the family we would be helping. Six months earlier, the family had been approved to receive a new home from Homes of Hope. This is a huge deal because the vast majority of homes are insecure and poorly cobbled together with plywood, cinder blocks, and the like. The banks are not trustworthy, and there is no loan system in place with which families can build a new home all at once. So they save up a little bit of money at a time, then spend it on a few more cinder blocks. That’s why all the houses look incomplete—they are all works in progress. It would take a small family an average of 7 years to make enough to buy the house that we would be building them. The results of this new house are really quite profound, as kids start doing better in school with the certainty of a good home, and money that would have been spent on a house can be put to use in other vital areas of life. Two months before our build, the father of the family died in a car accident, making this an even more significant gift to the family.

After half an hour in the van on spine-rattling roads, we arrived at the site of the build. The concrete foundation had already been poured behind the shack that the family called a house. We unloaded the tools from the truck and moved the stacks of lumber to various locations around the site for each crew. To begin, there was a crew painting the siding while another crew started building the roof gables. Jesse, Todd, and I were hard at work cutting the hundreds of pieces needed to frame the walls.

That first day was such a blur as the house flew up. It seemed we had barely begun when we were already putting the walls up. Even the mother and her 3 kids were enthusiastically helping where they could. I didn’t want to stop for lunch; I would’ve worked through the night to finish the house if they told me to. I was riding the high of building something with my hands and helping a family that desperately needed it. I wasn’t going to be satisfied unless I had given everything I could to make this house perfect for them.
It requires many cyclists to lift a wall
It just looks like I'm standing around, but I really am helping
During our lunch break, I finally had a chance to really take in the neighborhood. Every house was dilapidated and meager, and most didn’t even have doors, much less windows. The roads are all dirt and potholed. Vendors drove around all day advertising their wares through megaphones. Some sold tortillas, others clean water, some bought scrap metal. Drinking water was stored in barrels outside the house.
By the end of the first day, the house was 80% complete. Our whole team had worked very well together, everyone focused on their tasks, and finding a new one as soon as they were done. By the time we got back into the vans that afternoon, all that remained was interior trim work and painting, shingling the roof, and the finishing touches like the front door and the porch cover.

On day 2, before starting up work, we took a collection from the team for donations to help the family with groceries. From what I remember, nearly $1000 went into the hat. Later in the morning, as the job neared completion and there were more workers than work to do (or space in/around the house for them all), part of the crew went on a shopping spree with the family.
The receipt for multiple carts of food....
Meanwhile, the house continued to come together, but a problem had sprung up. The dirt surrounding the foundation was giving way, and the retaining wall eventually gave way completely, meaning that the solid ground was now only a foot from the corner of the foundation. So a small crew was dedicated to fixing the retaining wall to secure the foundation, and they did a great job. I was up above with the roofing crew, doing the best shingle job the world has ever seen.

Eventually, nothing remained but the final paint touch-ups and assembling their new furniture. Then the family returned with bags and bags of food, and we had a dedication ceremony where each member of the crew and family shared their experience with the build.
It was certainly and unforgettable experience. It was so great to know that I’m directly helping a family in need, and to work with my hands to achieve it. To finally put skin in the game of helping others is very powerful, and I have thought about it every day since. It’s impossible for such a trip to not give you some perspective.

I am a professional cyclist. Even with my meager earnings, I achieve a standard of living, a quality of life that these families can only dream of. I’m blessed to be able to do what I love for a living, but I also realize that my job isn’t ending world hunger. They’re just bike races. My career could end any day with an accident, and to have no purpose in life besides crossing the finish line first could be a disaster.  I can’t begin to understand the grand plan of my life, but the Good Lord has seen fit to give me legs that pedal better than many and open the right doors so that I could reach this point. So I work as hard as I can to be the best, enjoy every day that I get to be a bike racer, and trust that somehow I will be able to accomplish some good in the world.

That final night, we used the last bit of our energy in a very enthusiastic game of soccer, in which most of us managed to injure ourselves in some minor way. Then we all parted ways, a big group of friends after such a powerful experience.

This trip was certainly not my last, and I can’t encourage you enough to find some way of volunteering or giving that directly connects you with others. 3 months afterwards, I still think about the trip nearly every day...that's the kind of effect that the experience can have, and don't you want that?