By FELICIA KRIEG, Press-Republican
---- — PLATTSBURGH — Twenty New Jersey cyclists rode through the North Country to raise funds to build a medical clinic in West Africa.
As of Saturday, the all-volunteer Freedom Riders had raised more than $42,000 through the donations of family, friends and others who have heard of its cause.
The participants, who range in age from 16 to 63, rode with a 15-member support-and-gear team from Zarephath, N.J., to North Hero, Vt., where they began their journey home Sunday. Overnight Saturday, they stayed at Cumberland Bay State in Plattsburgh.
By this Saturday, they will have ridden 535 miles back to Zarephath, where most of them attend the nondenominational Zarephath Christian Church.
The mission got its name about five years ago, when three cyclists rode through England raising money to buy freedom for enslaved women and children in India. Those rescued from slavery were taught a trade like sewing so they could become financially independent, rider Steve Butwill said.
The riders and support staff pick a different Freedom Ride route each year, and Butwill said riding through the Adirondacks has been on their “wish list.”
The group members embrace the outdoor culture that they have noticed is popular in the Adirondacks and northern New York, and they were enjoying themselves, Buthill said.
Projects in past years included raising money to purchase an orphanage to house children suffering from AIDS in Kamam, India, and for the Urban Impact program.
One hundred percent of the donations go to the mission, Butwill said.
Participants use their own money for all travel costs.
Urban Impact is a week-long residential camp program for boys and girls ages 9 through 12 years old. The aim, through daily experiences in music, dance, theater, sports, Bible study and academic tutoring, is to empower them and give them the confidence to chase their dreams.
“We show them new ways to live and think,” said Urban Impact Program Coordinator and Freedom Rider Josh Paul.
This year, the Freedom Riders ride to bring physical and spiritual
healing to the broken people of
Po River, Liberia.
A 14-year civil war destroyed the majority of Liberia’s health-care system, Butwill said.
He and his wife, Jen, a pediatric nurse-practitioner who is part of this year’s Freedom Riders support staff, traveled to Po River a few months ago to help run a one-day clinic.
About 200 people traveled to the location that day, some hiking miles through land without roads to guide them, Mrs. Butwill said.
Many of the patients she saw had illnesses like malaria, for instance, untreated for long periods of time because they didn’t have access to medical care.
“That really hit us. We knew we needed to do something,” she said.
The Butwills are quitting their jobs and moving to Po River in January with Support and Gear team member Sue Gonzalez to work full-time at the clinic.
Gonzalez, previously a full-time missionary and nanny, said her goal is to provide the people in Po River with hope and comfort.
“We want them to know they’re not forgotten,” she said.
To keep those at home updated during their journey, the riders call New Jersey Christian radio station Star 99.1 three or four times each day to give a short update on the air,
The radio station is one of their sponsors, along with Donor by Design, the company at which second-year rider Jon Simons is employed.
Simons has looked forward to this year’s trip ever since the 2011 experience.
“It’s like going to summer camp for adults,” said the former bike mechanic.
What started out as a way to enjoy his hobby while helping others evolved into a life-altering experience.
On the third day of last summer’s ride after hearing the stories of faith and healing from his fellow bikers, Simons “broke down,” Paul said.
“It was life-changing mentally, spiritually and emotionally,” Simons said. “I recommitted myself and gave my life to Jesus Christ.”
Like Simons, each rider has his or her own unique story to tell, and forging new friendships is only a small part of what makes the Freedom Riders so special, Jen said.
“People have really gotten behind us,” she said. “It’s just incredible.”
To learn more or to make a donation to the Freedom Riders, go to http://poriverclinic.com. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. To contribute to the Po River Clinic go to www.poriverclinic.com. To donate to Urban Impact, go to www.