Pedaling with a purpose

For Neal Friesen, a journey of 10,000 miles began with the single pump of the pedals of his bicycle back in New Iberia, LA, on May 31.

So far, he and his trusty two-wheeler have logged about 4,000 of those 10,000 miles.

There have been plenty of stops during that trip, to rest and replenish, including the few minutes he spent at The Roadhouse in Vermillion early Tuesday afternoon to grab a burger and cool drink and simply rest for awhile.

Making this stop a bit more significant than the routine breaks he's taken while on the road were the people who dined with him Tuesday. They included his mother, and his grandmother, and all sorts of friends and relatives. The van load of supporters from his hometown of Henderson, NE, all drove up to Vermillion to rendezvous with him.

And both his mother, and his grandmother couldn't help but make the same observation. Friesen has lost weight since he began his journey.

The biker is currently living a dream, even while facing intense heat, breakdowns, accidents, and the occasional storm.

"I've been wanting to take a longer trip like this. Two years ago I rode from Hesston, KS to Boise, ID," he said. "I did that with a friend, and ever since then, I've always wanted to do something bigger."

In May, the 26-year-old Friesen decided not to continue his employment as a resident director at Hesston College in Hesston, KS.

"I sort of planned ahead, saved up some money, and planned out this route," he said. "As I got everything planned out, it seemed like a wasted opportunity if I didn't raise money for somebody, or do it to benefit somebody, so I started working with Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) and it just happened from there."

And soon, what began as little more than a lark at first had a mission. And a formal name: Cyle MDS.

Friesen has been averaging about 400 miles a week on his bike. "If I stick with that, it will take me 25 weeks to cover the 10,000 miles, which will have me done before the end of November," he said.

His journey will end where it began – in New Iberia, LA. When completed, his biking adventure will have taken him through all the USA's lower 48, along with a jaunt into Canada.

The challenge, the new experience, the adventure, the friendly people he meets along the way are all important to Friesen. But, his main goal is to eventually help others by raising awareness and support for Mennonite Disaster Service.

"I don't go into places and say, 'give money to MDS,' but we have a website with information on how to donate, and, any chance I get I'll tell people what I'm doing," he said. "If people want to give money, they can – but I don't feel comfortable in begging for donations. If people feel led to give, they can."

Mennonite Disaster Service, a disaster-relief agency comprised of Anabaptist churches (Mennonite, Brethren in Christ, Amish, and others) in the United States and Canada, organizes volunteers to assist in disaster-stricken areas in both countries – including areas now being contaminated by the Gulf oil spill. The agency's main focus is on helping the most vulnerable in a community: the elderly, the handicapped, single parents, the unemployed, the uninsured, and the underinsured – those who are not covered by traditional means of recovery.

The main focus of MDS is on clean-up, repair and rebuilding homes, – an activity which, in turn, becomes a means of touching lives and helping people regain faith and wholeness.

In particular, Friesen hopes Cycle MDS will provide assistance to the Hesston College Disaster Management Program, which exists to develop leadership abilities in managing disaster response while emphasizing Christ-like service to socially vulnerable people.

The Disaster Management program began at Hesston College in the fall of 2005 as a cooperative venture between Hesston and MDS. With the increase in disasters, and the resulting victimization and economic losses, MDS and other faith-based agencies recognized the need for trained leadership in managing disaster response and recovery.

Most students who enter the Disaster Management Program at Hesston receive the associate of arts (A.A.) degree, and then transfer to a four-year school. A two-year associate of applied arts and sciences (A.A.A.S.) degree and a one-year certificate is also offered for those who do not wish to transfer to a four-year school after Hesston.

While Friesen isn't on an active fundraising crusade while pedaling on his 10,000 mile journey, he does hope to compel some of the people he meets along the way to make donations on behalf of Cycle MDS. Those funds, in turn, will be used to help support students in the Disaster Management Program at Hesston College, and help connect volunteers with disaster survivors who need assistance.

Most of the time, he travels alone. He has no support vehicle. At times, a fellow biker will tag along with him for a short while – maybe for 20 or 30 miles. But Friesen is on a solitary journey. And it's just the way he planned it.

Friesen carries all 80 pounds of his equipment – including a portable camp stove and a small one-man tent – in a pack strapped to his bike.

As Friesen enters new territory each day on his bike, he deals with new challenges. He's hit a guardrail and been jettisoned over his handlebars in Connecticut; in Iowa, a semi truck that passed two close literally blew him off the road.

This week and last, the weather has been particularly brutal, with high temperatures and humidity, and at times, severe storms. As his journey heads west, into sparsely populated areas, Friesen ends each day's journey in a smaller community with a grocery store, where he purchase food for his evening meal, and, with permission, set up his tent in a campground or park.

"I try not to carry too much food with me, but I definitely have beans and rice with me at all times," he said. "The heat has been horrible, and Sunday night, when that awful wind  blew through, I was in Storm Lake, IA, and they got hit hard. There were some huge trees that got taken out.

"I had gone to the campground there originally, but when I found out was the weather may do, I packed up and moved to a motel, and that was a smart move," he said.

Tuesday, as he prepared to leave The Roadhouse and continue his trek, Friesen has hopes of making it to the Viborg area before sundown.

"I'm hoping to make it to Swan Lake Christian Camp, which is just outside Viborg," he said. "It's a camp that I've worked at for years, and I'm familiar with the people. It will be nostalgic to step back on that campground, and it will nice to take a dip in the lake there."

The website at www.cyclemds.org provides updates on Friesen's ride, and information about the organizations he hopes to assist and help to those who want to make a donation to support the MDS program.

People may also follow Friesen's blog at www.cycleMDS.blogspot.com.

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