Rise Up Ride On: Tri-town cyclists complete 200-mile charity ride through the Philippines
I wouldn’t call myself adventurous. For instance, you won’t find me jumping off cliffs or bridges, hiking the Appalachian Trail or shaving off all my hair.
Still, when someone asks you if you want to ride 200 miles through the Philippines, in August, on a bike. The best response, despite the terror that might immediately constrict your airways, is to say “yes,” especially when it’s for a good reason.
In June, Heidi Dubreuil, a member of the nonprofit All Hands Volunteers and a Rochester resident, asked if I would join her for Rise Up Ride On 2015, a four-day bike ride in the Philippines to raise money for the ongoing work to rebuild some of the 1.1 million homes destroyed in Typhoon Haiyan two years ago. All I had to do was raise $2,500 and train for bike ride that would take us over mountains (small ones but still mountains) and across two islands impacted by the storm.
I love to bike, but usually only in 5 to 15 mile stretches. So with less than two months until our leave date, I worked, I biked and I harassed my very generous friends for donations. When we boarded the plane for two days worth of travel to get to the All Hands base in Tacloban City, I was mentally prepared that this was going to be the hardest physical challenge of my existence. I wasn’t wrong.
Our first day in Tacloban, Heidi and I met up with the 11 other riders, hailing from six countries, as well as the support staff who would keep us hydrated and healthy on the trip. We were soon equipped with mountain bikes and taken on a “short” 30-mile trip around the city to see some of All Hands work to date.
Jet lagged, dripping with sweat and watching kids climb over and around a playground built by volunteers, I thought of all the people who put in their own time, energy and money to give children a safe place to play and live. It’s no small feat.
We bikded to one neighborhood named 83-C where 43 homes have been built. At about $5,000 each, the homes far exceed what an everyday Filipino family could afford, so volunteers have spent thousands of hours digging foundations, pouring concrete, installing septic tanks and putting up walls in an effort to “build back better.” Working in collaboration with local carpenters and other nonprofits, All Hands’ homes simulataneously restore communities and withstand typhoons.
After seeing how much work volunteers do, I was humbled that, hard as it may be, my “roughing it” in the heat and humidity was for a short four days.
But bike we must. Our van ride to the starting point on Samar Island promised beautiful scenery – lush groves of coconut trees, vibrant green rice paddies and expanses of the Pacific – and steep, sometimes unpaved mountain passes.
We began our journey Monday morning at 7:30 a.m. on a long, flat stretch.
As we set out, we each had our reasons for joining the ride. For Heidi, this was an opportunity to see a project in person that she had spent a year working on from the Mattapoisett office.
For Rollie Dela Cruz, a native of the Philippines, the ride hit close to home. "I love cycling and this is my way of riding for fellow country women and men who continue to struggle to recover after Haiyan," he said.
As the terrain got more challenging through the ride, the morale stayed high. We knew we could limp into one of the support vans at any time if our legs and lungs failed us, but there was constant encouragement to succeed.
One strong rider from Australia spent almost the entire trip in the back of the convoy to encourage our Filipina teammate, and the riders at the front of the pack often cheered on those of us bringing up the rear when we finally arrived at a check point. Our oft repeated motto “We’re a family!” proved true in such moments. If it weren’t for that, it would have been much easier to entertain the thought of giving in.
In village after village, we also got plenty of reminders as to why were doing this ride. The state of the houses we passed were reminders of how much people have lost. And, although they had no clue why this group of blue T-shirt clad cyclists were torturing themselves on bikes not motorcycles, we constantly received warm greetings from the Filipinos we passed.
Along the way, we also heard the stories of people and communities who weathered the storm. Like Hurricane Katrina in the south, Haiyan has left a deep scar on the islands.
In one town, we met a woman named Shella who survived the typhoon by clining to a metal post as the wind whipped around her. Her home was flattened by the superstorm, but her family survived and they are now rebuilding their home. It’s a slow, expensive process but Shella is hopeful their new house will be strong enough to withstand the next storm. Since visiting, I have often thought of the photos posted on one unfinished wall in Shella’s home that show the decorated interior she dreams of.
Another day we visited a new building site where All Hands is partnering with Streetlight, a nonprofit that works with street kids. Volunteers are building an orphanage, library and community center for street kids and to unite displaced communities in an area that is hopefully more protected from storms.
Hearing these stories and seeing the impact of All Hands, I was amazed by the resilience of the people and the impact of volunteers. I have only awe and respect for the people who commit a week, a month, six months and sometimes longer to volunteering for rebuilding efforts. They work with and for the communities to see real change, and they care for the local people the whole way.
Two years have passed since Haiyan, but there is much work to be done. I am hopeful that the almost $40,000 raised through Rise Up Ride On will encourage more people to go, help and give. The work is hard, it’s hot, it’s incredibly humid and there’s no air-conditioning at All Hands’ base, but giving families new homes, restoring livelihoods and giving kids a place to be kids is not a shabby way to spend your time.