If you were on the west side of Upson County last Monday afternoon, you may have seen a group of 10 bicycle riders heading down Highway 74 and Jeff Davis Road. They weren’t the start of another Bike Ride Across Georgia (BRAG) which Thomaston hosted a couple of years ago, but were 8 young men and two adults from the Paul Anderson Youth Home in Vidalia, in the middle of a 560-mile bike ride they were making to raise money for the facility.
The Paul Anderson Youth Home was founded by Olympic gold medalist Paul Anderson and his wife in 1961. Anderson was once known as the “world’s strongest man” for lifting 6,270 pounds, and during many of his speaking engagements, would often challenge men and women to sit on a table which he would then raise off the floor using his back.
After retiring from professional weight lifting, Anderson decided to turn his life to helping youth get off the path of criminal behavior. The youth home gives teenage boys an alternative to jail time and tries to get them on the right path. Since its inception, 90 percent of the boys who have been through the home’s program have gone on to lead productive lives.
Anderson first did the bike ride in 1961. It was re-established nine years ago. Drew Read, Chief Operating Officer at the home, is one of the adults leading the ride this year. He said while the ride is a fund raiser for the home (it has raised more than $140,000 this year), it is also a part of the home’s program.
“We select specific boys in the program that we think this would be good for them,” Read said. “For example, one of the boys that we have, physically he is fine to do it, but mentally it has been very difficult for him. But what we’re trying to teach them is that they can discipline themselves, and they can build positive habits, and it is little bit by little bit by little bit. You can’t just say, ‘Overnight I’m going to change 50 things in my life.’ I’m going to change one thing at a time, and build a positive habit. So really, this is a part of our program. We use it as way to help transform them, so that they can see change is possible. It is up to them, no one can make them change. They have to look at themselves and say, ‘What do I want to change in my own life?’”
The ride this year went from Vidalia to Augusta to Athens to Jonesboro to Thomaston to Macon and back to Vidalia. In addition to the five boys chosen for the ride, there are also three alumni and two adults riding. Read said the boys have done exceptionally well on the ride.
“Probably the best thing about this ride is you see some of the changes,” he said. “You see the beliefs begin to emerge in these young men, that they can do this; it is them, their mental and physical will power, and they accomplish something that they didn’t probably think they could actually do.”
Chase, an 18-year-old from the Atlanta area, is one of the five home riders this year. He was struggling with alcohol and drug addiction for several years, and entered the program after he was caught burglarizing a home. He has been in the program for nine months and it has allowed him to get free of his addictions and brought focus into his life.
Chase said he has always had problems seeing things through to the end, and the bike ride has helped him learn to not give up.
“The ride has been hard, and I thought it was going to be hard,” he said. “There is a lot of bonding involved in it. I was expecting that, and the other boys were expecting that. The fellowship is great, and besides having to pedal through 90 miles some days, it’s been a great ride. It has been a really good experience with the other people.
“ I’ve learned a lot from it – perseverance starting out. That was one of the ultimate goals I was going into it with, to see it through to the end. I think that is a huge confidence booster for everybody.”
Monday night the group spent the night at a home on Atwater Road. Tuesday they headed out to Macon, with plans on completing the last 100 miles of the ride on Wednesday.
To learn more about the program or to make a donation, visit www.payh.org.
Larry Stanford may be reached at 706-647-5414 or on Twitter @LarryStanford7.