During the summer after my freshman year of college, I biked 4,000 miles from Jacksonville, Florida to San Francisco, with the non-profit organization Bike & Build. Our mission was to raise money and spread awareness for the affordable housing crisis in America and to help build homes in several communities along the way.
Early one August morning, we rode up to an old, dilapidated house in Farmington, New Mexico to find a defeated woman watching Little Miss Sunshine from her wheelchair. Five years had passed since she filed a request to have her front porch reconstructed. The deteriorating mess of soggy cardboard, rusted nails, and rotting wood that was to serve as her sole access to the street was neither structurally sound, nor ADA-approved. By the end of just one day, we reconstructed her entire porch, and let this woman know that she mattered – that she was not forgotten. This success kept me feeling invigorated as I rode from one town to the next, making small dents in our national affordable housing crisis.
But no experience is perfect, and there were moments when the southern hospitality was deeply entangled with layers of prejudice. Several times, openly gay members of my group were verbally assaulted. It did not matter that they had raised thousands of dollars and devoted their time to improve the communities where these individuals lived – they were “an abomination in the eyes of God.” My liberal upbringing in diverse, cosmopolitan Manhattan did not prepare me for this raw prejudice. I was heartbroken and I began to second-guess our role. I realized that a community might not always welcome my assistance: while the work itself might be appreciated, cultural barriers may undermine the value of the work done by individuals of conflicting backgrounds, lifestyles, and beliefs.
Only a select few of our experiences can really be transformative. Bike & Build stands out for demonstrating the complexity of truly helping others. Whether we are building homes or helping in some other way, we must be careful in our approach. Hammering nails into wood beams builds a house, but not a home. While it is important to have an agenda, having an open mind trumps all. There is a wide spectrum of beliefs, attitudes, perspectives within a country, and within a community – making generalizations and assumptions about how an individual will respond to “help” can be detrimental. The best we can do is to communicate our needs, ideas, feelings, and opinions with each other.
Biking across the country gave me a small taste of the types of experiences, internal struggle, and interpersonal conflicts I might encounter in my career. While most days I was eager to arrive at a new destination, there were days where I felt like giving up and going home. I learned a lot about my stamina and perseverance when I kept peddling in spite of 30mph winds, a hurtful remark by a churchgoer reprimanding me for my non-religiousness, or when it felt as though I was using every ounce of energy I had and still going nowhere. On a larger level, I gained faith in the ability of non-profit organizations to be effective agents of change in this country, yet realized that we have a long way to go in building a country in which people feel truly safe “at home,” regardless of how many affordable houses we build. Perhaps most importantly, though, I became more optimistic about what the passion, strength, and perseverance of a group of individuals has the potential to do.