DOWNERS GROVE – After Steven Szafranski's trip this summer, a bike ride to downtown Chicago and back will feel like a jaunt around the block.
On Aug. 11, the Downers Grove resident returned from a cross-country bicycle trip with the Fuller Center for Housing that took him from the Mississippi delta region to the Rocky Mountains before finishing in Canada. Along the way, he and the other volunteers stopped in six cities to help building or clean-up projects for the underprivileged.
The Fuller Center was founded by Habitat for Humanity founders Millard and Linda Fuller in 2005. The Christian organization provides zero-interest loans and other services to the poor to help repair or build housing.
Before the trip, Szafranski didn't even own a bike. But he began looking for something memorable and meaningful to do this summer as he transitions careers. The 25-year-old recently left his job as a financial adviser with plans to look for work in teaching or with a nonprofit.
He settled on the Fuller Center's trip because it included the public service aspect, and because its required fundraising commitment – $1 for each mile of the trip – went straight to the cause. For riders like Szafranski without a bike, the Fuller Center also offered a bike assistance program fundraiser.
Including his own contributions, Szafranski said he ended up fundraising about $7,000, nearly $2 per mile.
Szafranski and the 14 other riders making the full trip departed June 7 from Savannah, Ga. and finished two months and 3,700 miles later in Vancouver, British Columbia. The volunteers stopped at cities in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Colorado and Idaho for service projects along the way.
Szafranski said his body met the physical demands of the trip, despite having not trained rigorously beforehand.
"My legs are much stronger now, obviously," he said. "The mountains were the most difficult, but they were the most rewarding."
Along the way, other volunteers would join their ranks for a leg of the trip, and Szafranski said the group typically averaged about 20 people throughout.
The cyclists were supported by churches and community centers that provided shelter for sleeping and meals along the way.
"It was refreshing to get the real-life view of the country," he said. "Reading news, it can be easy to be cynical and negative about everything. But it was really heartwarming to visit these people. They invited us into their churches and homes and cooked for us and really just showed us love."
One of the stops included Moore, Okla. to help clean up after the devastating tornado that destroyed much of the town and killed more than 20 people just weeks earlier.
Szafranski said he doesn't think he'll be able to take the amount of time off required for the trip again next summer, when it takes a new route from Atlantic City, New Jersey to Astoria, Oregon. But, it will stop at a new Fuller Center partnership in Waukegan, and he hopes to jump on for that leg.