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Rhode Island Student to Pedal Across United States to Help Less Fortunate

Fri January 28, 2011 - Northeast Edition
Jay Adams


Brandon Biggs will spend 10 weeks traveling the country by bicycle and building houses.
Brandon Biggs will spend 10 weeks traveling the country by bicycle and building houses.
Brandon Biggs will spend 10 weeks traveling the country by bicycle and building houses. The group arrives with 33 people to complete a lot of work in a short amount of time. In most instances, the construction was already under way, or multiple houses were being worked on at the same time, so the Bike and Build members were divided into smaller groups and paired up with a member of the construction crew, so they could complet

By Jay Adams

CEG CORRESPONDENT

Brandon Biggs is pedaling non-stop on a stationary bike, preparing to bike across the United States to help build homes for the poor and less fortunate.

Biggs, 23, a Louisiana native and a Cocoa, Fla., resident is a first-year law student at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I. He is training for 80-mi.-per-day rides in order to do “sweat equity” with a local affordable housing group, so that in spring he can help contractors and construction work crews put up homes for the homeless in a half dozen states.

Bike, Then Build

Biggs is one of dozens of young people, aged 18 to 25, who have joined Bike & Build, a national organization that has raised $2.78 million over eight years to help various housing groups build homes. Its expansive national footprint allows it to promote the need of affordable housing in 47 states, one province and hundreds of communities nationwide.

Biggs first heard about B&B from a friend during his undergrad years at Flagler College.

“I fell in love with the idea of seeing the country at the pace of a bicycle. At that time, my experience with bikes was limited to owning a mountain bike I bought at Wal-Mart, and riding to work and class occasionally,” said Biggs. “After I was accepted as a rider, I began training last December [2009]. Riders commit themselves to ride at least 500 miles before the trip leaves and at least one ride of 65 miles or longer.

“I am now completely hooked on cycling and I ride as often as I possibly can, even if it means on a stationary bike in my living room through this New England winter,” he said.

“Some [riders] are absolutely head over heels for affordable housing and that is the driving force of biking. For me, and many others, it was the adventure of riding that really made me want to do this. The fact that it was for a great cause was an added bonus.”

Away from studying the law, Biggs has learned all about “sweat equity.”

“I think one of the main reasons that B&B has riders do sweat equity is not only to gain experience in building, but it causes you to fall in love with the cause. I will never forget the satisfaction and pride I shared with the young lady I was working with in St. Augustine, Fla., last year as we wrapped her shed in weatherproofing, and she was called into what would soon be her kitchen to pick out the color for her countertops. It was such a simple thing as color, but she glowed knowing that she and her kids would soon have a home and I was elated to be able to share in the last day of her sweat equity.”

As a part of B&B, riders research different aspects of the affordable housing issue and present them to their fellow riders every week.

“As stewards of this movement, it is important to us that we be informed young adults so that we might inform others of what we are doing. We are all young adults, and one thing we strive for is inspiring other young people to be aware of social issues and strive to make a difference in our community,” said Biggs.

Working With Contractors

Biggs’ 2010 group worked with Habitat for Humanity affiliates in Jacksonville, Fla, Mobile, Ala, Dallas, Texas, Baton Rouge, La., and Yuba City, Calif. Each of these habitats had their own contractors who instructed riders how to do the task at hand.

“We have a unique opportunity, since we were only with each group for usually one to two days, but we arrive with 33 people to complete a lot of work in a short amount of time. In most instances, the construction was already under way, or multiple houses were being worked on at the same time, so, often, we were divided into smaller groups and paired up with a member of the construction crew, so that we could complete as much of the work they needed in the time we had,” said Biggs. “It was a huge advantage to have site managers, contractors and building crews on hand to manage us as volunteers.”

“You can’t help being inspired by the work and team spirit of the Bike and Build riders,” said Glen Williamson, site supervisor at Yuba/Sutter Area Habitat for Humanity in the Marysville, Calif., area. “They roll into our community near the end of a 3,000-mile trip, not exhausted or worn out, but in high spirits and a sense of purpose that elevates the whole project.

“It’s not work, but a mission to improve the circumstances of families that were fortunate to be part of the riders’ visit to our town,” Williamson said.

In New Orleans, Biggs’ group worked with EDOLA, the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana. In Farmington, N.M., he had the opportunity to build with an organization called ECHO, a private affordable housing program.

“I would say that if I had to try and describe it, boy, 24 hours of absolute insanity followed by an incredible amount of work that got done at the end of the day. That would be my description of what Bike and Build did,” said Russ Allen, construction supervisor, ECHO.

“I have always been in awe about the conditioning of what it would take to bike across country and then to work for a day. The projects we were able to give them to build, and paint, and move, it was incredible. They not only got everything done we asked of them but had fun and loved doing it. It is a great organization.”

“ECHO did an absolutely stellar job. At the end of the day, we felt as though we had gotten a huge amount of work done. This was not unique to Farmington, but all of the Habitat affiliates we worked with did a great job of accommodating the large influx of volunteers to their advantage,” added Biggs. “The worst feeling as a volunteer is having too many hands and not enough work.

“The other thing Habitat did very well was that they taught us an incredible amount. Most of the full-time builders, managers and contractors for Habitat affiliates are retired building professionals, and they really seem to get a lot of joy out of teaching young people not only how to do a task, but how to do it well and with a great sense of pride,” he said. “I have to say thanks to all of those people who did this because it really made our days so much better when you learn how to properly level the frame of the house, however frustrating it might be at times, rather than accepting it as any less than perfect and moving on, or fixing it after the volunteers go home.”

Building Up the Disenfranchised

Some of his building experiences were heart wrenching.

Outside of Dallas, Biggs was able to have dinner at the home of the director of the local Habit for Humanity. She invited many of the homeowners over so Biggs had the chance to talk to those who had been helped in the past and those whose homes were being built currently.

“It was great to see first-hand who you are building for and why you are doing this,” he said.

“Some of our riders [in New Orleans] went out and got gifts for one of the homeowners because he and his children would be moving back into their home in a week. That particular gentleman and his family had moved out of the 9th Ward only a week before [Hurricane Katrina] because a stray bullet killed one of his sons. Because they had not been in the house 30 days, insurance refused to support their claim.

“I was working in Tremme [Louisiana] with a woman who was literally evacuated from her house at gunpoint during the storm and had suffered severe distress as a result. By the time we left, everything was in place so that she could move in as soon as the plumber hooked up the pipes to the sink and cabinets we had built for her, and she would be able to pass inspection.”

Seeing the Country by Pedal

The scenic vistas of Biggs’s thousands of pedaled miles were no less memorable.

“Some of my favorite experiences in riding were crossing through the part of the country I thought I would hate most. Being as far south as we were, I thought Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada would be hot and miserable. It was hot, but it was some of the most surprisingly beautiful country I have ever seen. Every day, traveling just 80 or 90 miles, you got to your next host and you didn’t feel like you were in a new city, but rather a new country. I couldn’t believe how drastically the terrain could change in so few miles. Every day was completely different from the last,” said Biggs.

“We climbed the eastern Sierra Nevadas and descended down into Lake Tahoe, and seeing that beautiful huge lake in the middle of a mountain, after climbing a very steep mountain for the last 20 miles of our 100-mile-day was one of the most incredible things I have ever seen. It looks like the water is about to spill out of the mountain at any second,” he added.

“Most of us also hit our top speeds of the trip coming down the other side of the mountain the next day. I never thought I would go over 50 miles an hour on a bicycle.”

47 States and a Province

Bike & Build runs eight national routes, with roughly 32 riders on each trip annually (256 riders a year). The program started with only two routes.

Riders travel through 47 states on these routes and the northern-most route actually leaves the country and travels into British Columbia on the last day of their trip.

Each route is roughly 10 weeks long.

“On my last trip from Jacksonville, Fla., to San Francisco, we rode approximately 4,000 miles. This summer will be roughly about the same. We average about 70 miles a day on the bike, and our longest day is about 110 miles, which, last year, was on U.S. 50 through Nevada, which is the loneliest road in America,” said Biggs.

With contractor, builder, volunteer and rider help, Biggs said, “I think it is safe to say, the number of families we have helped is well into the thousands. I know we have donated more than 50,000 man-hours on build sites over the last eight years.”

This year, Biggs’s group will be building in Kansas City, Mo., Charlottesville, Va., Cincinnati, Ohio, St. Louis, Mo., Boulder, Co., Steamboat Springs, Co., Idaho Falls, Idaho, and Portland, Ore., either with Habitat for Humanity rebuilding or new construction.

2011 will be Biggs’s last year of the trip.

As a law student, next summer he will have to take a more traditional job and work at a law firm getting experience in his field. But the road does not end there. Every year over the winter holiday, B&B has an alumni ride in Florida for a week and it builds for two days.

The nearly $3 million raised by Bike & Build includes more than $490,000 donated from the summer of 2010. That also is its goal this year.

Bike & Build also supports local affordable housing organizations along each route through on the road donations.

For more information on Bike and Build, visit Bikeandbuild.org. To see Biggs’s personal page, visit http://bikeandbuild.org/rider/4656.