Gimme Shelter

A tornado can be a surgical scalpel. When a particularly ferocious one of these deadly blades sliced through downtown Tuscaloosa, Ala., on April 27, 2011, University of Alabama freshman Ashton Greer wondered at the injustice of it.

Ashton Greer, 23, of Kingsport, Tenn.

Ashton Greer, 23, of Kingsport, Tenn.

Her building was unscathed, yet a quarter mile away, apartments and houses were flattened. The university cancelled the rest of the semester, so Ashton drove back home to Kingsport, Tenn.

“Going home after that, it was a really weird feeling,” she recalled. “All those homes were destroyed, and I felt like . . . it was almost unfair.”

Ashton, who just graduated from Alabama as a civil engineering major, was one of 33 young bicyclists who stayed overnight at R. E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington on Tuesday, June 3, on a long journey to spar against all manifestations of that seeming unfairness in America.

They were passing through town, all wearing the same sponsor-decorated blue spandex uniforms with “Bike & Build – 2014”

Cyclists (l-r) Andrew Byrum, Aaron Handely, Michael Prechter and Dan McMahon

Cyclists (l-r) Andrew Byrum, Aaron Handely, Michael Prechter and Dan McMahon

across the front zipper, on a 3,800-mile crusade for affordable housing. Their route, from Virginia Beach to Cannon Beach, Ore., was painted on the side of the trailer hauled behind their support van – a route that looked a lot like the old Oregon Trail of the 1840s.

truck side

The trailer’s side maps the route.

Their team, like their route, was only one of eight with a similar number of cyclists, ages 18-25, pedaling from sea to shining sea for Bike & Build. Each individual had raised $4,500, half of that to pay for the trip and their Giant 10-speed road bikes, the other half to go to affordable housing projects along the way. They also are stopping about once a week for a Build Day, putting sweat equity into such projects.

If you do the math, that’s quite a haul, in miles and money. Let’s see – about 275 bikers would’ve raised $1.23 million this year. The Bike & Build website says in 11 seasons, the volunteer cyclists have contributed more than $5 million to housing groups across the country.

Bikes in the Undercroft

Bikes in the Undercroft

The parish’s contribution to this Central United States (CUS) route team was a place to leave their bikes in the Undercroft, directions to showers in the Washington & Lee gym, a lasagna dinner, the Parish Hall floor for their sleeping bags and pads, and a breakfast. It was the second year Bike & Build has stayed at the church. Their “thank you”s to the church volunteers were many and heartfelt.

Church volunteers Bob Glidden, Frank Settle and Libby Cumming prepare breakfast

Church volunteers Bob Glidden, Frank Settle and Libby Cumming prepare breakfast

Program director Sharon Massie said there had been a plan for a Build Day in our little town. But somehow, in the planning, someone mixed up Lexington, Va., with Lexington, Ky., which isn’t on the CUS route. So they had their first Build Day in Charlottesville.

Too bad. Rockbridge County has a huge need for affordable housing. (“Affordable housing” varies with income. The federal government says paying more than 30 percent of income on monthly rent or mortgage payment plus utilities is a cost burden; the county’s rental assistance looks for housing below 40 percent of income for its clients.) In 2010, 385 families were on the county’s waiting list for federal Section 8 housing vouchers, and many are still on that list, according to Rockbridge County’s director of rental assistance, Vicky Agnor.

As a civil engineer graduate, Ashton Greer

Ashton wiping down a breakfast table

Ashton wiping down a breakfast table

is interested in how engineering can provide infrastructure for all kinds of different people, whether it’s affordable housing, clean water, or other structures. As a member of the Colonial Heights Christian Church of Kingsport, she’s aware of a social responsibility to serve those who are less fortunate, “and hopefully share some of that love,” she says.

The idea of serving on a bike didn’t occur to her until recently. In fact, she had never ridden a good road bike before this year. During her senior year in college, she began riding her mom’s cheap Walmart mountain bike around Tuscaloosa. Then she heard about Bike & Build through a friend, and found it on the Internet.

Ashton and Blythe Carter, 21, of Chapel Hill

Ashton and Blythe Carter, 21, of Chapel Hill

Thinking of the tornado of 2011 and the need for affordable housing, it seemed natural to jump into the challenge. She did the necessary miles of training, the required 10 hours of volunteer house building and set up a website for donations from friends and family.

Directions - store or snore

Chalk directions: store or snore

By the time she reached Lexington, she had pedaled about 430 miles from the coast, crossed the Blue Ridge and was looking forward to the next 3,400, a number she knew without hesitation. Asked how many gears her Giant Avail bike has, she paused. “I’m not sure.”

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About Doug Cumming

journalism professor at W&L
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