2018-07-13 / Front Page

Firehouse Hoosiers go the distance

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer


Members of The Firehouse Youth Ministry of Clay Church in South Bend, Indiana, including, from left, Doug Fecher, Tim West, Aaron Helman, Ben Tadevich, Bonnie Yoder, Terry Barnett, Heidi Hodges, Ted Lingenfelter, Braden Leidy, Stephanie Portolese and Jeff Jesko, stop along Long Beach Avenue in York on Friday, July 6, the completion of a 12-day, 1,015-mile bike ride. The group stayed at West Kennebunk United Methodist Church overnight before heading back the following day. (Courtesy photo) Members of The Firehouse Youth Ministry of Clay Church in South Bend, Indiana, including, from left, Doug Fecher, Tim West, Aaron Helman, Ben Tadevich, Bonnie Yoder, Terry Barnett, Heidi Hodges, Ted Lingenfelter, Braden Leidy, Stephanie Portolese and Jeff Jesko, stop along Long Beach Avenue in York on Friday, July 6, the completion of a 12-day, 1,015-mile bike ride. The group stayed at West Kennebunk United Methodist Church overnight before heading back the following day. (Courtesy photo) West Kennebunk United Methodist Church was used this past week in a way it never has been before, hosting nearly a dozen people from South Bend, Indiana, who bedded down on its hard wooden benches.

According to church lay leader Beverly Staples, it was, so far as can be known, the first time the building’s 154-year history that anyone has been allowed to camp out inside the sanctuary.

“No one has ever spent the night in the sanctuary before that we know of, but I can’t promise that no one has ever fallen asleep in here,” Staples joked.


Heidi Hodges, 15 of South Bend, Indiana, celebrates along Long Beach Avenue in York on Friday, July 6, at the completion of a 12- day, 1,015-mile bike ride from her home to Maine as part of the 10th annual ride of The Firehouse Youth Ministry of Clay Church in South Bend. (Courtesy photo) Heidi Hodges, 15 of South Bend, Indiana, celebrates along Long Beach Avenue in York on Friday, July 6, at the completion of a 12- day, 1,015-mile bike ride from her home to Maine as part of the 10th annual ride of The Firehouse Youth Ministry of Clay Church in South Bend. (Courtesy photo) Still, despite the strange request that came in a surprise telephone call this past spring, West K church members were happy to play host and, staging a spaghetti supper in honor of their guests.

And afterward, bellies and spirits full, the Indiana natives wasted no effort splaying out on the padded pews and falling fast asleep.

And who can blame them? After all, they had just completed a 12- day, 1,015-mile bicycle ride from South Bend to Maine, dipping their tired toes into the Atlantic Ocean off Long Beach Avenue in York on the afternoon of Friday, July 6, just as an oppressive heat wave that had traced their path from New York on began to break.


Members of The Firehouse Youth Ministry of Clay Church in South Bend, Indiana, mark the completion of a 12-day, 1,015-mile bike ride alongside their Maine hosts, members of the West Kennebunk United Methodist Church, who treated the 11-member group to a spaghetti supper. The bikers stayed in the church sanctuary overnight before heading back the following day. (Duke Harrington photo) Members of The Firehouse Youth Ministry of Clay Church in South Bend, Indiana, mark the completion of a 12-day, 1,015-mile bike ride alongside their Maine hosts, members of the West Kennebunk United Methodist Church, who treated the 11-member group to a spaghetti supper. The bikers stayed in the church sanctuary overnight before heading back the following day. (Duke Harrington photo) The 11 riders are all members of The Firehouse Youth Ministry of Clay Church in South Bend. The bike trip, founded to teach teens the value of hard work and perseverance, and to instill in them the confidence to tackle any obstacle, has been an annual tradition for the past decade.

During that time, more than 100 different cyclists age 15 and older have participated in the event, logging a combined trek of more than 250,000 miles — greater than the distance from the Earth to the Moon — through parts of 10 states. But for the 10th anniversary ride, youth pastor Aaron Helman wanted to try something a little different, something truly memorable. And so, a second leg was added to this year’s trip, from Niagara Falls in New York, through the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire, to the Maine coast.

“We decided we would do something extra crazy,” he said. “About half of this year’s group went home after Niagra Falls, but the rest of us continued on from there.

“We started it because we want teens to know they can do hard things, and we’ve continued it because it works,” Helman said.

“Perseverance and endurance, that’s not something you can teach in a sermon,” Helman said. “You can’t just stand up in front of someone and tell them what it means to persevere. You have to actually go out and do it.

“I don’t think, generally, that we push teenagers hard enough or expect enough out of them these days,” Helman said. “And when they first hear about this trip, most of them think it’s crazy. They say, ‘I could never do that.’ But we say, ‘Just trust us. You’re going to see that you’re capable of so much more than you could ever imagine.”

Helman and Doug Fecher — who co-founded the annual bike trip and, with Helman, is the only only one to make all 10 trips — both agree that riders go on to do better at high school and college, and in the workforce.

“Everyone comes to a breaking point, where they realize that it’s not just them — that God is in this, that there are others around to help and support you, and that you really can go a lot farther than you think,” he said.

“Once you get a taste of what it means to really, actually work hard — not to just say, ‘Yeah, I think I tried hard,’ but to actually dig deep when there’s still 80 miles to go, that’s a lesson that sticks with you forever,” Helmen said.

“Once they have experienced that kind of threshold once, it applies to everything in life,” Fecher said.

The ride involves “a lot of teamwork,” and “a lot of encouragement,” the ride founders say. And everyone accomplishes something.

For example, one freshman rider this year, ended up tiring at the 440-mile mark on the 470-mile trip from this year’s starting point, in Monroe, Michigan, to Niagara Falls.

“Does that diminish his accomplishment? Not at all. He went 430 miles further than he ever had in his life.”

Another first-year rider this year was Heidi Hodges, age 15, who made the complete 1,000-mile journey. She began with two weeks of training in April, never having shifted into the higher gears on her bike.

In fact, when she first tried during training, she found she did not have the grip strength to coax to chain into its transition. Then, alone among the 11 riders to go all the way, she made the trip in standard tennis shoes, rather than bike shoes that clip into the pedals, allowing to rider to make forward power on both the up and down strokes.

“It was really exciting to see how well she did,” Fecher said.

“It was insane,” Hodges said. “We got here to where we could actually see the ocean and I was, like, ‘Wow! We actually just did this!’ It was crazy.”

Hodges, who was just 5 when the bike rides began, had heard about the annual trip since joining The Firehouse Youth Ministry in sixth grade. However, church members are not allowed to make the run until finishing their freshman year of high school. So, this was the first year in which she was eligible.

“I thought I didn’t need the special bike shoes. I definitely needed them. But I got though it anyway,” Hodges said, flashing a broad smile. “We did a lot of hills the second week and I struggled with them, and I learned how to pump up a tire, because I got two flats along the way, but I made it.

“The hardest part was telling myself I could do it,” she said. “I knew I had the strength to do it, but my mind kept getting in the way, making me think it was too hard and I couldn’t go on anymore. But the people around me gave me the motivation to keep going. I’m so proud of myself — of all of us — having made it.

“Now that I can know I can do a lot more, I’m going to push my limits and continue to try new things and not give up on something because it looks too hard,” Hodges said.

Another rider this year was Stephanie Portolese, who has made the trip five times. From a novice like Hodges, she has gone on to now ride competitively in college, even running the famous Little 500 track race that was the subject of the movie “Breaking Away.”

In her first year, she recalled, she was in tears at one point trying to make a hill, but managed to press through.

“I’ve actually cried every year since then,” she said. “And I definitely did cry to this year. In Indiana, the land is actually pretty flat. But when we got to New Hampshire this year, those were not hills, those were definitely mountains.”

And something like summiting the Appalachian chain on a bicycle not only creates mental toughness in an individual, it creates lifelong social bonds.

“It’s just so much fun to be with this group every year, just tearing our bodies apart, especially in the second week, when we’re all losing our heads a little bit,” Portolese said. “But it’s a camaraderie where we are all in it together, all equally doing the same thing.

“The harder it is, the more you have to pull together. The 11 of us who made this entire trip, we are a really close-knit family now,” she said.

According to Helmen, the 12-day bike trip only costs about $270 per person, most of that in food and gas for the support vehicle that accompanies them. To keep expenses down, the group stays each night in a local Methodist church, from giant 600-member services like their own South Bend congregation, all the way down to little churches like the one in West Kennebunk, which is down to just 40 active members.

But even being such a small church, the locals did not hesitate to extend a hand, Staples said. Despite a stove that is decidedly on its last legs and could use a replacement if funds can be found, the West Kennebunk church continues to stage monthly bean suppers for the public on the first Saturday of each month, April through October, and sells homemade turkey pot pies in season.

“It’s great,” Staples said. “These people have come all this way and to be able to host them here, it’s terrific.”

And it really wasn’t an inconvenience.

“We’re Methodists,” joked church member Alayna Laprel. “We feed people. It’s what we do.”

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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