Six young men — current and former residents of the Paul Anderson Youth Home in Vidalia — are taking a 550-mile bike ride in the summer heat on a threefold mission.
Riders on the seventh annual Paul Anderson Cycling Challenge set out from Vidalia about 7:30 a.m. Saturday. Before 11 a.m., they had reached Daisy in Evans County, where they stopped for rest and a snack. Choosing less heavily trafficked roads such as the one that runs from Daisy through Nevils, they arrived in Savannah Christian Church that evening, having completed their first 100.3 miles. The rest of the route will take them to St. Simons Island and Jacksonville, Fla., before they loop back through north Florida to Homerville, Ga., and then back to Vidalia. They are scheduled to arrive home Friday.
The ride serves as a fundraiser for the home, a tax-deductible Christian charity that accepts no government funding. Corporate sponsors make major donations, and individuals can sponsor riders and track their progress through a link at www.payhbikeride.com. This year’s goal is $75,000.
The ride also helps spread the word about the Paul Anderson Youth Home’s work. Founded in 1961 by Olympic weightlifting gold medalist Paul Anderson, the home provides a family-like atmosphere, Christian guidance, a Southern Association of Colleges and Schools-accredited high school education and work responsibilities for troubled teenagers. For many, the home is an alternative to incarceration.
Finally, the grueling ride provides a physical challenge, a sense of personal achievement and group bonding for the young men.
“I look at it as a way to believe in myself and learn how to overcome something,” said Taylor, 17. “You know, you never fail till you stop trying. I mean, if I can do this, I can do anything.”
A current resident of the Paul Anderson Youth Home, Taylor — only his first name is given — came there more than 10 months ago after unruly behavior at home and trouble at school led to more serious trouble. The home, he said, has taught him “good morals and respect and all of that” and helped with his family life.
“I guess the best thing was they treat you like family,” he added. “They treat you very fair, and they help you any way they can. Like, if you need someone to talk to, they’re there.”
He never really rode bikes before arriving at the Paul Anderson Home. But the riders trained, making several rides a week for a month.
“We’ve been training a good bit, actually,” Taylor said. “I think the most we rode was 52 (miles) one day. So this is a big stretch, but we can do it.”
Cody Palmer, 20, graduated from high school at the youth home about seven months ago.
“Growing up, I had a real bad problem with, I guess, just wanting to fit in, and I thought drugs were the way. I started with marijuana, and then pills and cocaine,” he said.
He wound up in jail for a month before his mother, through a chance meeting, made contact with someone at the Paul Anderson Youth Home.
At first, Palmer faked it, “going with the flow, staying out of trouble,” but then realized this wasn’t enough, he said.
“And I really seen what all the staff had and how happy they were and their family and what they believed in, and all the values and morals were just so strong and so real that I wanted that,” he said. “So that’s when I decided to give my life to Christ and change my ways.”
Now a student at Toccoa Falls College, Palmer plans to transfer to North Georgia College & State University or Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., to study physical therapy. While at the youth home, he was also encouraged to develop his athletic ability and won a number of running competitions.
“The ride is a great learning experience, and I think it’s cool because it’s just you on a bike, and you have to persevere a hundred miles or however long it will be with a group of guys that you know that you care about each other and you can push each other,” Palmer said.
Of the six riders at the core of this year’s challenge, four are current residents. Palmer is one of two alumni along for the entire ride, but other alumni are joining the group for portions of the route.
Three staff members are also riding, as are some volunteers.
“I think from our perspective, the most important part is what we see happen with our boys,” said Eric Love, who has been a counselor and teacher at the home for 11 years. “You know, we have boys that come into our program who, many of them, are not physically active in any way, and for them to be able to ride a 500- or 600-mile bike ride is something that they never thought possible.”
This provides a snapshot of what the home does every day, he said.
The home, which once expanded to a chain of six homes and included programs for girls, has since contracted to its original campus, with a boys-only program. It has served more than 1,200 youth since 1961 and accommodates 20 at a time.
Staff members observe that 90 percent avoid jail after leaving the program.
Drew Read, 42, the chief operating officer of the Paul Anderson Youth Home, has ridden with the group each year, including last year’s extra-long ride to Omaha, Neb., marking the home’s 50th anniversary.
Paul Anderson, long hailed as the world’s strongest man, died in 1994. When he had set out to establish the home in 1961, he first made a bicycle trip to Boys Town in Omaha. Along the way, he collected some of the first pledges used to fund the home.
Mac Jordan, a Vidalia supporter of the home and another avid older cyclist who rides with the boys, recalled this when Read sought a new fundraising project seven years ago. The two then planned the first Cycling Challenge.
“We do a number of different fundraising events. This is the best one we do,” Read said. “Not in terms of the money raised; we raise more money at other events. But this event is so good because the guys, to them it seems insurmountable — ‘I can’t bike that far. I can’t bike a hundred miles a day. I can’t do it.’ — but they do it, and every day, their confidence grows.”
By mid-morning Monday, the riders were at Woodbine, Ga., expecting to arrive at Amelia Island, Fla., in the afternoon. Some had reported falls and crashes Sunday, but were back on their bikes with minor scrapes and bruises.