Bikes nixed from Habitat Challenge

For student organizers of the Habitat for Humanity Bicycle Challenge, the time has come to rebuild.

At an information session in Dwight Hall on Wednesday night, HBC organizers were emphatic that there will be a Habitat Challenge in 2008, but with one major difference — no bikes. The new plan, still in its developmental stages, aims to send a total of 30 students on a series of two-week house-building sessions in four communities across the country, where they will construct homes, form ties with community members and go on short wilderness trips.

Dozens of students completed the 2006 Habitat for Humanity Bike Challenge, which is changing to a Habitat Challenge without bikes.
Dozens of students completed the 2006 Habitat for Humanity Bike Challenge, which is changing to a Habitat Challenge without bikes.

While organizers said they think the new Challenge will preserve many of the most rewarding components of past trips, some individuals close to the trip expressed doubt that Habitat will be able to eliminate the danger inherent in the trip.

“[This trip] represents a lot of what Yale students stand for,” Jessica Bialecki ’08, an HBC student board of directors member, said. “It’s big, it’s idealistic — it’s about putting yourself out there.”

The original model for the trip — which sent teams of bikers on cross-country trips to raise money and awareness for Habitat’s New Haven affiliate — was officially abandoned at a Sept. 24 meeting of the student board of directors.

The decision came after Dan Lewis ’09 was hit by a car and seriously injured while crossing Kansas on the Challenge’s southernmost route on July 7. It was the third serious accident the Challenge witnessed in three years, following the deaths of Alexander Capelluto ’08 in 2006 and Rachel Speight ’06 in 2005.

Organizers said they plan to step up their efforts to ensure the safety of participants in the 2008 trip. Public transportation such as trains and buses will be used to move students from community to community, Student Director Sophie Turrell ’08 said.

Anticipating that the new model will present unforeseen difficulties despite the extensive planning, organizers said they plan to start small. Last year, a total of 90 students from across the country — roughly half of them Yale undergraduates — participated in the Challenge, but next summer’s trip will feature two groups of 15 students each,” Turrell said.

The small group size will not only increase the trip’s flexibility but will also make it easier for small communities to host the Challenge participants for two weeks, organizers said.

But the smaller size of the trip will limit its fund raising potential, Turrell said. Habitat New Haven Executive Director Bill Casey said the $430,000 raised by last year’s HBC accounted for roughly 20 percent of the budget for Habitat’s New Haven chapter. Event organizers declined to offer an estimate of what the new model will raise in its first year, but they said they are focused on laying the foundations for a trip that will be viable in the long term.

“We’re trying to be smart about it — we recognize the need for sustainability,” Bialecki said. “We’re trying to build for the future.”

Bialecki said the new setup preserves the spirit of the old format and will be more effective than the bicycle tour at raising awareness and integrating students into host communities. Because the new model is a departure from the “epic physical challenge” of years past, it will likely attract a somewhat different type of person, Turrell said.

But the new challenge is not yet road-ready. Habitat New Haven Volunteer Coordinator Jennifer Rook said that while she looks forward to the new model, students still have many details to work through. The towns to be visited, students’ transportation between regions, details of cooperation with existing Habitat chapters in local communities and wilderness activities have yet to be finalized, she said.

Students at Wednesday’s meeting said they are optimistic that the new trip model will replicate some of the best components of the former trip. Nikolas Bowie ’09, one of the leaders of last year’s Challenge, said the cross-country bike trip facilitated fund raising efforts by offering potential donors the opportunity to be part of a unique trip.

Bowie is a staff columnist for the News.

But Colin Campbell ’09, who rode on last year’s trip, said he is disappointed that biking will no longer be a part of the Challenge. He said he is skeptical that the new format will be able to make the trip completely safe.

“There’s no way in any adventure or outdoor type of setting that you’re going to be able to completely avoid injury,” he said.

Casey agreed that accidents are possible on any trip, whether or not bikes are involved.

“I don’t think you can prevent accidents from happening,” Casey said. “That’s why they’re called accidents.”

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