Biking Cross Country Building Affordable Housing Along The Way

Biking across the country to promote affordable housing, with stops en route to help build houses and makes presentations about the topic, in just 10 weeks may seem like a tall order for a 22-year-old college graduate, but that is what Alyssa J. Russell of Hatchville has been doing through the nonprofit organization Bike & Build this summer.

In 2011, the US Census Bureau reported that 40 million families could not afford a durable home. Organizations like Habitat for Humanity aim to lower that statistic by using volunteers to build affordable houses. Bike & Build supports these organizations through the orchestration of cross-country cycling trips for young adults.

Bike & Build’s vision is twofold: to aid the affordable housing cause through monetary donations, hands on work, and grassroots promotion, and to empower a generation of engaged citizens who are dedicated to lifelong philanthropic service, according to the company’s vision statement.

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Bike & Build offers a variety of coast-to-coast trips, each spanning eight to 11 weeks. During that time, cyclists travel an average of 70 miles a day, giving presentations on affordable housing at their host sites in the evenings and stopping once a week to work at build sites. Bike & Build limits participants to young adults ages 18 to 25 in a concerted effort to focus on youth empowerment.

Ms. Russell graduated from Falmouth High School in 2010 and graduated this spring from Boston University, where she studied international relations and public relations. At both institutions, Ms. Russell participated in volunteer work through extracurricular activities, such as the Key Club and Habitat for Humanity.

Yet, when she first heard about Bike & Build, Ms. Russell thought, “I would never do that.”

Before this summer, Ms. Russell had not done much long-distance biking. In fact, she said the farthest she had ever biked was the length of the Shining Sea Bikeway in Falmouth. Now, Ms. Russell might bike 500 miles in a single week.

“I was actually really afraid of biking before the trip,” Ms. Russell said. “I’m not sure if I’ve hit this home yet, but I was not really athletic.”

Despite her early dismissal of the idea, this past spring Ms, Russell found herself submitting a binding application to Bike & Build for their 10-week northern US trip. “It stuck in my mind the entire year,” she said, “and I was thinking about what to do after graduation.”

In preparation for the trip, Ms. Russell was required to log 500 miles of cycling, raise $4,500 for an affordable housing charity, conduct interviews with affordable housing beneficiaries, and personally research the affordable housing cause.

“It has been really touching to me how supportive Falmouth has been...just how people came out to support me...I even heard from my elementary school librarian and principal,” Ms. Russell said.

Ms. Russell is now pedaling somewhere between Duluth, Minnesota, and the flat plains of North Dakota. She has been biking for five weeks, but she said the time “flies by.” By the end of August, Ms. Russell will have traversed North Dakota, catching sight of the Rocky Mountains before traveling through Glacier National Park in western Montana and finally biking through Washington to reach the Pacific Coast.

Although the first two weeks spent pedaling through hilly New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York were challenging, Ms. Russell said she has been surprised at how her body has adapted to the exercise.

The 2014 northern US roster consists of 34 young adults and four group leaders. Ms. Russell said that although traveling in a large group can be overwhelming, the physical challenge would have been too much to handle had she been on her own.

Ms. Russell said she loves being surrounded by supportive young adults, who are all working for the cause of affordable housing. She has also been impressed by their tirelessness; Ms. Russell said that one day in Wisconsin, after biking 100 miles in pouring rain, she arrived at the host site to find a group of the cyclists setting up a slip ’n slide in the yard. “You wouldn’t have been able to tell they had just biked 100 miles,” she said, laughing.

Before they reach the Pacific, the northern US team will work on 10 different build sites with a variety of affordable housing organizations. Ms. Russell said she has particularly enjoyed working with Community Action Inc., a nonprofit that rebuilds entire neighborhoods by helping organize local committees, constructing houses, and planting community gardens to provide fresh produce.

The Bike & Build team has had a host of grassroots promotional opportunities along their way. Ms. Russell said the team stops during the day often, and they always draw questions from passersby. When the cyclists stopped at the 45th Annual Agate Days Festival in Minnesota, team members received $200 in cash donations, just from talking with locals while eating at a pancake breakfast.

“I don’t want it to end. There have definitely been days that have been challenging, but overall it has been so cool... I get to meet people I wouldn’t meet otherwise,” Ms. Russell said.

So far, Bike & Build has donated $4.5 million and 160,000 hours of work to affordable housing groups nationally. Collectively, Bike & Build participants have traveled more than 7.5 million miles, and by the end of August,

Ms. Russell will have added 3,837 miles to that number. The northern US team’s progress can be followed at www.bikeandbuild.org.

Ms. Russell said she has enjoyed the chance to see the country, especially as an opportunity to imagine what sorts of places and jobs she could see herself in. She is not sure what she will be doing this fall after returning to Falmouth, but she would like to work for a nonprofit organization, particularly in environmental work.

Ms. Russell will get to keep the bike that Bike & Build gave her when the trip is over, and she said she plans to use it to commute to work in the future. 

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