At the beginning of this month, not one, but two different groups traveled through Grant County.
Their purpose here was two-fold. One reason was endurance, proving to themselves they could handle a cross-country excursion. But the second, and more important reason behind their travels was to raise money and awareness for those neighbors who are in need.
Former Marines raising money
for the wounded
Its Monday morning at the Eagle’s Roost Resort in Cassville, and Nic Doucette asks what the latest weather report is for the morning. The report from last night was for storms to move in sometime in the day, along with good-sized hail, and he is wondering if he should have his rain gear out for the next leg of their trip.
Weather is just one of the many things that he and his friend Gabriel Vasquez think about as continue their journey down the Mississippi River, but any worry pales in comparison to their cause. The duo, who got to know one another while serving in the Marines, have been making their way down the river from the headwaters as part of a fundraiser for the Semper Fi Fund, which helps injured Marines when they make it back home, making their lives a little bit easier.
“They are there to offer grants, assistance to alter homes, vehicles - anything to make life a little easier for them,” said Nic, who had the idea for traveling down the Mississippi as a fundraiser, and spent the better part of a year planning it.
Choosing the Semper Fi Fund was a simple one for Doucette, who is a native of Jefferson. That fund helped two of the members of their unit who lost their legs during their deployment. “They said this is one who helped us,” Nic recalled.
Doucette said that what he likes about Semper Fi Fund is that it has a low overhead - only 4 percent of funds go for administration, the rest goes to helping those Marines injured. Nic said that the inspiration was going fishing with canoes, and proposed the idea of taking the trip as sort of a super long extension of that.
“Everyone jumped on board, but as the plans got serious - and I was serious about it - friends just started dropping out,” Nic continued.
At the time, Nic figured he would be doing this solo, and decided a kayak made more sense. He then posted his plans on Facebook.
Enter Vasquez, who was still in the Marines at the time last fall when he saw Nic’s post. He said that he was game, and the start of the trip coincided with Gabriel’s exit from the military.
“I did eight years, and I flew out the next day to do this,” Gabriel said.
Neither one would say they had any real considerable experience kayaking, yet the novices took it on. Now, with 600 miles under their belt, they are pretty confident about the trip.
“I am having a lot of fun,” Gabriel said. The native of Austin, Texas, Vasquez noted that as a city boy, he hadn’t even ‘really camped’ until this trip, and it was his first time in the Midwest.
Doucette said for him, the time through Wisconsin was special. “Its nice being back in Wisconsin, where you can pull ashore, walk into a bar and see the Brewers on TV,” he said. “Its so refreshing being back home.”
While they have been camping during this trip, they also have been relying on the hospitality of people they have met along the way. For example, Jackie Hirsch had read an article about Nic and Gabriel’s cause and contacted them to offer a place to stay in Cassville. “She said ‘you have a place to stay when you hit Cassville,” Nic recalled. Several offers came to them via social media.
In addition, more Marines helped by the fund also reached out and showed their support. “It really kind of confirmed that we made the right decision,” Nic said.
The pair have a goal of raising $25,000 by the end of their trip, and just a couple of days ago they reached the halfway point of $12,500.
Weather has impacted their trip, sometimes stopping them from making any moves for a day. Nic has switched tents, and has even had to trade out kayaks a few times, like when his third kayak sprung a leak.
“The wind is just brutal,” Gabriel said.
For Monday, the trip was going to be a light one - they were just making their way to Dubuque, where they had a free place to stay at the Grand Harbor.
Leaving right before them was another kayaker who had stayed at the Eagle’s Roost, Ilan Levine from Columbus Ohio. Levine looked to challenge himself, after riding his bicycle across country last summer. Despite his only experience being a six-mile trip, Levine read about the Marines’ journey and met up with them.
“They are the important ones,” Levine said about Doucette and Vasquez and their cause.
So Nic and Gabriel said their goodbyes to Hirsch, packed up, and did the interview for this story, before making their ways off for another day on the water.
If you want to follow and learn more about their cause and journey, you can go to their website at mississippiriver2014.weebly.com, where there is also a link to their Facebook page.
Bicyclists building for families
Then, on Tuesday afternoon in Lancaster, a group of more than 30 bicyclists, as well as a support vehicle, came to the city as part of the seventh annual Fuller Center Bicycle Adventure, raising money and awareness of the Fuller Center for Housing.
The Fuller center is a non-profit Christian housing ministry that works in need of creating an affordable place to live for those in need, ranging from building new homes to rehabbing older, uninhabitable homes, or adding items like a wheelchair ramp if needed.
“Its all over the country,” said Melissa Merrill, one of the organizers of this year’s ride. As part of this year’s ride, the bicyclists are passing through nine of the 55 chapters they have nationwide to help in build projects. One of those was this past weekend in Waukegan Ill., while another was at the start in Atlantic City, where they helped families still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Merrill noted in Atlantic City they helped one family that had spent the past 18 months living in a mold-infested home because of the high waters.
This year the group has set a goal of raising $1 million, and is currently at $986,000 not even halfway through the trip. “We’re really close,” Merrill noted.
Starting a chapter is not hard at all. “It takes at least five people in their community who want to help out their neighbors,” Merrill stated. After filling out a two-page form, that’s it.
Merrill said that they choose a different route every year, and they wanted to do a northern route this year, bringing them through Lancaster.
Pastor Mark Hoehne of the First Presbyterian Church said they were contacted sometime in January about the ride, and he and Pastor Mark Dieter of the Lancaster Congregational Church jumped at the chance to host the group. The riders stayed at the Congregational Church, while the First Presbyterian fed them.
Hoehne said the mission of the Fuller Center fell right in line with the youth mission trip Lancaster participates in every year, where youth go to a community in need and help rehabilitate houses.
“There is a connection - the fact that we all of grieve when we see people whose living conditions are tough,” Hoehne said, noting the goal of making things warmer safer and drier for our fellow man. “I just think its an awesome ministry.”
John Hebert, one of this year’s riders, said he felt very welcomed into Lancaster after a grueling 80-mile day on the road, fighting high winds that cut the group’s speed in half. He noted it reminded him a of passage in the Bible where Jesus washed the Apostles’ feet. “When we come here and they feed us, and take care of us, it feels like that,” Hebert said. “They treat us like we are celebrities or something.”
Hebert said he found out about the ride two months before it started, and jumped at the opportunity as he had a 35-year-dream to ride cross country. He said that what inspired him more is it was more than a ride, it was also about helping others along the way.
Scheduled to only ride one leg, after three days, he wanted to be part of the entire journey, and donations came in to cover his ride. “Its the most exciting thing I have done in a long time.”
The riders can be followed on their Facebook page, or by going to fuller center.org/bikeadventure.