By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Aaron Brown had two flat tires in the first 20 miles of the 10-day JOMONOLA bike ride from Joplin to New Orleans, La.
“He did everything he was supposed to do,” Jerrod Hogan said of Brown, the lead pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Joplin and one of 30 people on the ride. “He trained, he bought a new bike, he had good air in his tires, but still, right off the bat he experienced a couple of flats. Luckily there was a community of cyclists around him to help him change them — to support him, offer him help, get him back on the road again.”
Hogan, the executive director of Rebuild Joplin, and the other riders concluded their journey late Saturday despite 65 additional flat tires, along with broken pedals, wheels, spokes and chains, and triple-digit temperatures.
“We’ve been talking a lot about parallels — what people go through after a storm and in doing an 800-mile bike ride,” Hogan said Sunday. “You know, people do things right. They have jobs, houses, insurance, then the tornado takes them away. But I remember seeing the beauty and humanity immediately afterward. How many people there were — people not even from Joplin — who were there to help pick up the pieces.”
The goal of the ride was to raise $150,000 to support the construction of a home in each of three storm-ravaged areas: Joplin (May 2011 tornado), New Orleans (Hurricane Katrina in 2005) and the East Coast (Superstorm Sandy last October).
Of the 30 riders, half were from the Joplin area and half came from places including Louisiana, California, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Hogan said he will drive the 15 Joplin area riders home today in the JOMONOLA bus after a tour of storm-affected areas in New Orleans.
“Besides each having to raise $5,000 and train, they had to take 12 days off, ride 10 days in the heat, invest in a bike and equipment, and they were doing it for people they’d never met,” Hogan said.
Joplin rider Dai Flake, who grew up in New Orleans, described the ride as one of the most challenging things she has ever done.
“It was somewhat scattered at first, but people quickly learned that when you’re by yourself, it’s tougher,” Flake said. “So we got closer, and the next thing we knew, we were doing a double pace line going 20 miles per hour.”
Towns, businesses and organizations provided water stops about every 10 to 15 miles. And churches in towns along the route lent assistance by opening their doors each evening so riders could bunk down on the floors of Sunday school classrooms, community rooms and offices.
View JOMONOLA Route in a larger map
Flake said congregation members cooked large quantities of spaghetti, lasagna and other high-carb meals so the cyclists could replace the 4,000 to 5,000 calories they were burning each day.
Elissa Yonkers, Rebuild Joplin development coordinator, helped man a support vehicle. She described the reception the group got at each stop as “great.”
“When we got to Anguilla, Miss., we were probably the biggest thing to roll through there in years,” Yonkers said. “Police officers gave the riders a police escort, and the mayor presented a key to the city.”
Hogan said the riders also were touched by those they met along the route who wanted to give financially.
“There was a security guard in a small town in Arkansas who walked over to see what we were doing. We pulled in with a bus, a truck, a trailer and doubled the population,” Hogan said. “When we explained, he went back to his house and came back with $2. He had tears in his eyes and said he wished he had more to give. But that $2, that meant just as much as $1,000.”
When the riders arrived in New Orleans on Saturday, a jazz band and a crew armed with signs welcomed them. And still more strangers gave to the cause.
“The team went out to Bourbon Street last night to have a round for cheers for the group, and a stranger asked what we were doing and where we were from,” Hogan said. “He pulled out a $100 bill and made a donation.”
Riders continued to text Hogan that they had received donations, and as of Sunday morning the unofficial total was within $10,000 of the goal.
“Churches along the route also said they will be taking offerings this week,” he said.
The group will split what was raised equally among the three storm-ravaged areas. Hogan expects to conduct a groundbreaking ceremony in Joplin as soon as a home recipient is identified, then the local riders will have a reunion work day.
“That way they can put nails in the house they helped to fund by the ride,” he said.
Again next year
FUTURE JOMONOLA RIDES already are in the discussion stages.
“I DON’T THINK we have a choice,” Jerrod Hogan said. “This thing’s bigger than us now. There were people along the way who gave us addresses to get in touch with them because they want to ride next year.
“WE DEFINITELY WILL DO 2014. A lot of the hardest work was building the capacity of a ride like this, to get it organized and branded. Next year, we’ll just change the year and maybe add Moore, Okla., and double our riders. No question we’ll do one.”