Monday, September 5, 2011

Nebraskans Bike for Hunger

Bill Ritter
Rev. Bill Ritter, Senior Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Columbus, Nebraska, is tall, blond, and trim.  You might see him arriving at church or traveling to visit his parishioners on his bicycle, for Bill is also an avid cyclist.  When not attending to his pastoral duties, Bill may be bicycling around the vast agricultural fields of Nebraska, sometimes participating in multi-day organized recreational rides such as the Bicycle Ride Across Nebraska (BRAN).
If this were June 25-29, 2011, however, you’d see Bill riding in the event he started 16 years ago and still directs – the Nebraska United Methodist Bike Ride for Hunger (NUMB). 
The idea for NUMB grew from at least 3 separate experiences:
  • Bill and his cycling friend, Greg Bakewell, numb with rainy, 37-degree weather during one multi-day bicycle event, took shelter in a hog barn and talked about how a bicycle ride could be conducted to better care for cyclists.
  • David Jefferson, then chair of the Hunger Committee of the Nebraska Conference of the United Methodist Church, expressed his frustration to Bill that the church had such great programs in place to help those who are hungry, but they were under-publicized and under-funded.
  • Bill heard a talk in which the speaker said that every time we take a breath, someone dies of hunger.  Bill told us, “Biking is kind of a meditative activity.  You’re very aware of your breath.  Here I was biking along in the middle of abundant corn fields and cattle, and every time I took a breath, someone died of hunger!  Jesus said, ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.’  [Matthew 25:35]  I knew I had to do something to help.”
So Bill enlisted the help of Greg and told David he wanted to start NUMB to raise funds for hunger. Since the first ride in 1996, NUMB has been sponsored by the Nebraska Conference of the United Methodist Church; it is now listed as an ongoing project of the Risk-Taking Mission and Justice Team.

Each year’s ride is laid out by Greg (now the official NUMB Route Director) in a large loop among 4 towns roughly 65 miles from each other. NUMB 2011 was located in the western panhandle of Nebraska. There, the area around the North Platte River is known as the “Valley of the Nile.” Hence, NUMB 2011 took on an Egyptian theme. 

Cyclists apply for NUMB with Regina Bergman, NUMB Registrar, and are accepted on a first-come, first serve basis up to the maximum number that Bill feels maintains the intimacy of a single community and is manageable for his team of volunteers.  In the first year, 36 cyclists from Nebraska took part in NUMB.  In 2011, 157 cyclists from at least 10 states participated.

Cyclists each pay a registration fee of $50, which covers all the costs of the ride, such as insurance and renting the truck to transport personal tents and gear.   Cyclists also pledge to raise at least another $100 in private sponsorships, all of which is donated to hunger relief. 

Briana Ritter, Regina Bergman, Greg Bakewell
Each registrant is told about the rigors of NUMB and how to train so they’ll be most likely to have an enjoyable ride.  Each registrant also indicates the type of bicycle they intend to use.  This allows Bill to make sure that NUMB’s mobile bike shop will have all necessary repair parts.  It also allows him to gently suggest an upgrade if the bike is unlikely to be suitable for this event.

At the start of NUMB, cyclists gather in the first town on Friday night and Saturday. They cycle to the next towns Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, and return to the starting town Wednesday.

To make sure cyclists have water, food, and opportunities for short breaks along their routes, Kathy and Wayne Minikus, SAG (Support and Gear) Directors, find good stopping points about each 10 miles along the route and volunteers to staff them. These volunteers also keep track of who passes each SAG site and don’t leave until the last cyclist has passed.

Meanwhile, teams of volunteers have been working on all the other tasks needed to house, feed, entertain, and care for all the NUMB cyclists. Bill recruits sites (typically churches) in each community that will arrange for meals, a large field in which the cyclists can pitch their tents, bathrooms and showers, and an evening meeting hall. Nina Clark, NUMB Social Director, plans entertainment for each evening.

Each day, Bill is among the last to depart – he stays long enough to make sure the NUMB volunteers have fully picked up the grounds so the town “can’t tell they’ve been there.”  Then he sets out.  On the final day of the ride, he again departs last, but with his 3 grown children ahead of him taking turns as wind breaks, he attempts to catch up and pass each other NUMB rider so he can personally thank them for riding and contributing to hunger relief this year.
Where do the NUMB funds go?  It’s important to Bill that the funds support hunger relief in 3 different ways:  Hand-out, hand-up, and advocacy.   Specifically, of the funds raised:
  • ¼ goes to the two food banks serving Nebraska, the Food Bank for the Heartland in Omaha, and the Food Bank of Lincoln for food relief through food pantries and feeding programs.
  • ¼ goes to Heifer International for its work dealing with root causes of hunger by helping individuals and communities in the US and around the world raise their own animals and become self-sufficient.
  • ¼ goes to an UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) Nigerian Agriculture Development Program to help women battle malnutrition through sustainable agricultural practices.
  • ¼ goes to Bread for the World, a Christian organization that lobbies US government elected and appointed officials on behalf of hungry people in our country and the world.
Initially, Bill thought NUMB might raise something like $10,000.  But publicity around NUMB has been enthusiastic, NUMB riders have worked hard to raise funds, and supporters have been generous. 

So far, the funds raised by NUMB total $519,000! 

That sounds like a lot of money, but Bill’s goals have risen.  Now he’d like to see NUMB raise $1M before he turns the reins over to others. 

We think NUMB can do it!  If you’d like participate next year, the dates are June 23-27, 2012. 
NUMB 2011 Riders

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