A cycling trip with her sister led Lily to pursue her passion to help others and apply her Urban Studies and Community Development degree by building homes for people throughout the United States.
Primal sat down with Lily, Bike and Build’s Office Coordinator, to learn more about how they are going beyond the jersey in helping our community.
Jessica: So, tell me more about Bike and Build and its history.
Lily: Bike and Build started in 2003 from a man named Marc Bush, our founder. He was part of the Habitat Bicycle Challenge at Yale, which is a very similar idea to Bike and Build. He saw that model and decided he wanted to improve on it, so he started Bike and Build. Since the founding, we have been running cross-country cycling trips to raise money and awareness for affordable housing and basically inspire young adults for - I mean, this is our mission statement, but - a lifetime of civic engagement as well as being advocates for the Affordable Housing Cause.
Each summer we do 3 cross-country trips and 2 regional trips - and basically, we have teams from anywhere to 26-36 people and they ride their bikes and they build homes along the way. We stop every 4-5 days and build with local affordable housing organizations – primarily Habitat for Humanity – but we try to get in some smaller, more local places as well.
Jessica: Okay, so then what would be the difference between cross-country and regional route?
Lily: Cross-country, we start on the East Coast. Our three trips, they start on different locations on the East Coast and we dip our back wheels in the Atlantic Ocean and then we go to the West Coast and dip our front wheels in the Pacific.
Then we have a regional route that goes from Bar Harbour to New York City, so it's a three-week trip.
We have "Drift West,” which is Portland, Oregon up to Bellingham, Washington, which is the trip that I was just on. Those are both three-week trips as opposed to like, two-and-a-half months on the road.
Jessica: That's cool. Why do you guys bring in young adults as opposed to say, senior citizens?
Lily: I think that's a great question. I would say it's about the empowerment that this brings. I think that young adults between the ages of 18 and 28 – which is our age limits – there's a lot of a room for empowerment, self-improvement, learning how you work with others, becoming a leader, and Bike and Build in itself is naturally good at doing that. When you are put into a situation like this, you really have to step up and figure out who you are and what you're capable of doing.
I know for sure when I did a cross-country in 2015 and I have never had an experience like it. I definitely benefited a lot at the time- I was 20 when I did it - so I think that being young and having that experience really helps with a lot of other aspects of life.
Jessica: Do you have a good example of that? Like how it transferred over from Bike and Build to your life?
Lily: Yeah, so let's see. I was a Sophomore in college when I signed up for my cross-country trip and I had just decided what my major was going to be. I didn't really know what I wanted to do it with it, but I majored in Urban Studies and Community Development.
My sister texted me one day, "Hey, check out Bike and Build. Do you want to do this with me?" At that point in my life, I didn't have any plans for the summer, and Bike and Build seemed really cool and aligned with what I was interested in, but didn't really know it yet. So, I think that I definitely matured a lot over the summer. I found some strengths and weaknesses in myself.
When I got back to Philly after my trip, I was…I felt…kind of changed. Before, I was okay with having days off, not really doing much, just going to class. And then I found myself really eager for more inspiring surroundings and people and places, so I started working at Habitat for Humanity as an intern. Then I interned at another affordable housing organization, called the People's Emergency Center, which does homeless transitional and affordable housing, and then I actually started working in the Bike and Build office during my Junior year.
It just kind of inspired me to recognize that there is a lot more hours in the day than just waking up, doing what I have to do, and that being it. I realized how capable I was of a lot more than what I'd been doing previously to Bike and Build.
Bike and Build taught me that there are bumps in the road and not everything is easy, but with the right mindset you can accomplish anything.
I also think my instinct to complain about small things has majorly reduced - if we don't have showers or a host dinner or wifi or whatever it is, complaining helps no one, these things are not important. I learned to live with less and enjoy life more.
Jessica: My other question was going to be how'd you get involved, but you totally answered that. So, then, what would be the most memorable experience you've had on one of these Bike and Build trips.
Lily: That's a hard question. I mean, there were really big days on my cross-country trip that were just huge accomplishments for everyone and a great team-bonding experience, for example, climbing Independence Pass in Colorado. It was our one big day where we knew we had like a huge climbing day and getting to the top and everyone was celebrating.
And really just any mountain pass we went over. We'd get to the top and people would be dancing and celebrating and having a great time. And then you'd have the most beautiful descent on that one, but I honestly feel like it's the small moments on Bike and Build that really make up the entire experience.
Like I said, dancing and eating ice cream at 10:00 AM, going swimming in any body of water that you can find. In addition to that, the build sites are always very memorable to me. Getting to talk to homeowners and hearing their stories and seeing and meeting the community that you are there for to build.
Getting to the Pacific Ocean, making it, feeling strong, feeling proud, feeling like I made a new family.
Jessica: Are you still friends with the people you worked with back in 2015?
Lily: Yeah, so we're spread out across the country. When I finished there was 9 of us in Philly I think, so we all hung out a lot. I made one of my best friends on Bike and Build. I rode with my sister as well, so my sister and I have 30 mutual friends. We still have a GroupMe, a text chain that every once in a while, pops up. We all keep in touch and one of our teammates just got married in May and I'd say 75% of our team was there.
It was fun. It was our first reunion.
Jessica: That'd be cool! You sort of touched on how you'd talk to homeowners at these sites you'd be building at, so what exactly, or who exactly, does Bike and Build benefit? I know you work with Habitat for Humanity, but are you building house for a specific person, a group of people, or who are these homes built for?
Lily: It's different for different organizations, but for instance, for Habitat for Humanity, they have a homeowner application process, where you apply to be a homeowner, you go through all the training and whatnot once you're accepted. Then homeowners have to do, depending on where you are, a few hundred hours of sweat equity, so they actually have to volunteer their time with Habitat for Humanity before they can receive a home as well.
And the houses - it depends on what build site you're on - but a lot of our build sites are single family homes. They are pre-chosen homeowners that will be moving into these homes. Sometimes they're on the build site; sometimes they're not. It depends. We volunteered with an organization in Seattle during “Drift West” that has apartments – like a huge apartment complex. We painted it. That's more like single-family apartments, smaller, single bedroom. I didn't get to go into the actual place, but it all depends.
Jessica: What's the hardest task you've had to do at a build site? I was reading that everyone gets the training and there's the safety aspect of it so you're not putting yourself in harm, but I'm sure most people don't come from a construction background, right?
Lily: So, they all do a really good job of, you know, helping us, training us, teaching us what we have to do and the construction workers stay with you, if you know, you're lifting a wall or shingling or whatever it is. I would say that we really do anything that they need. So, for instance, on my cross-country trip, we stayed in Colorado Springs for a week and actually did a build with the Pikes Peak Habitat for Humanity. We actually built an entire foundation of a home in that week. So, we did everything that could be done for that part of a building a home.
The hardest thing - for me personally - landscaping is really hard. I had trouble with it. Also, putting trusses up to support a roof. I'm not really good at that either.
Jessica: But then of course, you learn the skills and can do it yourself now.
Lily: It is great to learn.
Jessica: I wish I knew how to build a house. I'd make my own. So what do you guys look for in these volunteers? There's an application process, right?
Lily: Yeah, so we have our applicants fill out an application and they write a few short essays on what affordable housing means to them, why they want to do Bike and Build, why they would benefit and be a good teammate. Then for the most part, I would say, it's first come, first serve. We very rarely have turned people down. I think it takes a pretty ambitious and specific type of person to want to do Bike and Build to begin with. Sort of trusting that process of "oh, you want to do this? and you're capable and willing to?" then that's pretty much how we get them. And people hear about Bike and Build primarily from word-of-mouth form their friends and family.
Jessica: That makes sense. I was reading you don't have to have a major cycling background too.
Lily: Yeah, when I applied, I had a hybrid bike that I rode probably 2-3 miles at most in one ride. And you do your training miles and you get ready. I would say that the first week or two is probably a little bit hard for everybody, even if you're super prepared. Your body isn't used to riding 75 miles a day, but after that, I think that your legs kick into gear and everyone sort of gets the hang of riding a bike that much.
Jessica: Do they give the volunteers a training plan to get them ready to go across the country?
Lily: You have to do 500 miles on your bike before you leave for your orientation. That's spread out over 4 months, so if you ride a few miles per day, you can still get that fairly quickly. We track all of our volunteers' miles - their training miles. We have everyone ride in the rain at least once before the trip and we have people do a group ride so they know what it's like to ride with other people. We have them do at least one ride that's over 65 miles, so you get the prep.
Jessica: I was reading there is a fundraising requirement. What's the purpose of the fundraising requirement too?
Lily: All of our cross-country riders raise $4,800. Our regional trips have to raise $2,400. Basically, this money goes towards programming and also all the money it costs to support and have these trips. We grant out the rest of the money, so people fundraise for the affordable housing cause and the money that we have from the fundraising, we have a grant application, where organizations from cross-country can apply for affordable housing grants from us.
We split up the grants we have chosen and we divide them out amongst the trips and they actually get to take the pool of money they raised and choose what organizations they want to fund. It's kind of a cool process for the team.
Jessica: Wow, that's really sweet. So you kind of answered this, but I'd love to hear more. Why would someone want to get involved with Bike and Build?
Lily: I think it depends on who you ask. Some people absolutely apply because they want to ride their bike across the country. I think there are a lot of people that no matter what, they'd find a way to do that. For me, personally, I think it was partly the adventure, but also the cause. I personally have lived with a roof over my head for my entire life and I think it was sort of more about understanding and seeing how the rest of the country functions. You really get to know every place you stop in at least a little bit. And the places you even ride through, on a bike you can stop whenever you want, wherever you want.
I also think that people have friends who did Bike and Build and they see the pictures and they hear the stories. It's really an experience that's unlike most things in life and sort of gets people – even people who don't ride their bikes – even if you're not a cyclist, why would you want to ride your bike across the country. You see and hear about other people's experiences and it's just so cool and awesome and I think people are just drawn to that.
Jessica: Is there anything else you'd like to add for people who may be interested in joining Bike and Build?
Lily: One of the best parts of Bike and Build to me is the people that you're surrounded with constantly. Even on this 3-week trip I just did, we were just 32 strangers and then within three weeks, I feel like I know everyone like I've known them my whole life. It's just that environment of family and friends and people that are there and are struggling with you, like hard days, you really get to know everyone. I'm very appreciative of the people I've met on Bike and Build and what they're doing.
After speaking with Lily, it’s easy to see how impactful Bike and Build is, not only on the lives of potential homeowners, but the people building the homes as well. By forcing ourselves out of our comfort zones, we learn that complaining gets you nowhere, but adventure and the willingness to learn takes you everywhere.