So far, the team of cyclists that rode into Macon on Tuesday afternoon has raised $140,000 for the Paul Anderson Youth Home in Vidalia.
But the charity aspect is just a side benefit to the 560-mile bike trek across Georgia.
The youth home gives teenage boys an alternative to jail time, trying to get them on the right path in life. The cycling event is symbolic of that experience: stay on course and accomplish a goal.
“The main goal of the program is that (participants in the program) made bad choices in life,” said Drew Read, the home’s chief operating officer. “They don’t think they can complete things or do things. It’s great to watch them do something they thought was impossible.”
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Four current residents and four graduates of the program have competed in the Vidalia-Statesboro-Augusta-Athens-Jonesboro-Thomaston-Macon trek, which winds up Wednesday as the group cycles back to Vidalia.
Chase, an 18-year-old from Lawrenceville who has spent nine months in the program (the home doesn’t provide last names for current residents), was struggling with alcohol and drug addiction for the past couple of years before he entered the program after a residential burglary charge.
The program has allowed him to get clean and bring focus into his life. Though he still has another 11 months at the home, he already has plans for what he wants to do once he graduates. After taking a year off, he plans to enlist in the Navy. After his service is completed, he wants to go to college to study computer programming.
“I feel a lot different,” he said. “I have clarity, which I didn’t have in the past. Clarity is certainly a great thing, but the biggest gain has been the ability to resist temptation. It’s given me a strong will.”
Some graduates of the program say that while they were unenthusiastic entering it at first, it has given their lives great meaning. Even though it’s an alternative to jail or prison for some young men, the program is no cakewalk, they said.
“It’s a place that has helped me get back on track,” said Ben Olaharsen, 19, of Norcross, who entered the Paul Anderson Youth Home rather than go to jail after drug charges. “At the time, I thought it kind of sucked. I didn’t want to do it. But now it was good that I did. I realize how much of a benefit it has been.”
Olaharsen is participating in his first bike event for the home. He said his time at the home helped him prepare physically as well as mentally for the ride.
Cody Palmer, 22, of Madison is riding in his fourth bike ride. After graduating from the program, he’s now an intern at the home, mentoring the troubled youths there.
“I focus on values, morals, what is right,” he said. “I try to tell them to stay out of trouble and focus on their work ethic. It’s very important to stay busy.”
The home is named for former Olympic gold medalist Paul Anderson, who was once known as the “world’s strongest man” for lifting 6,270 pounds, a Guinness record. After retiring, Anderson devoted his life to helping wayward youths get off the path of criminal behavior. More than 90 percent of the participants in the program have lived productive lives without getting into further trouble.
Read said the program is the only one of its kind in Georgia not to receive financial assistance from the state.
To learn more about the program or to make a donation, visit www.payh.org.
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.