In the golden sunlight of summer, teams of teenagers and twentysomethings will shift into high gear and embark upon a once-in-a-lifetime journey to experience America.
Each one will shimmy out from behind the windshield of their car and cut through the wind on the seat of a bicycle.
Freed from the temperature-controlled bubble and social isolation of today’s automobile and the insular cocoon of many of today’s college campuses, they will drink in vibrant green fields and towering mountains, inhale woodsy scents, and hear the songs of birds and brooks as they coast across the country.
For a nonprofit named Bike & Build, pedaling through picturesque panoramas is only a small slice of their bucket-list cross-country cycling trips. These are epic excursions with a higher purpose, a modern-day spin on Habitat for Humanity on wheels.
For three months, these unselfish millennials — mostly recent college graduates — will set out to bike across America – and build homes for the homeless and house-poor when the pedals stop turning. At designated stops, they will exchange their bike helmets, sunglasses, black spandex and jerseys for hard-hats, work gloves, face masks and tool belts.
As the rubber hits the road, they raise money and awareness for the cause of affordable housing.
Bike & Build’s cycling-for-service mission is a cause embraced by East River Bank in the greater Philadelphia area.
“We are a community bank, so getting involved with the communities we serve is an important part of our culture,” said President and CEO Christopher McGill, a lifelong Philadelphia native.
Every year, East River Bank sponsors teens from the historic Philadelphia area to participate in Bike & Build rides. Last year, sponsorships were given to four high school students, who otherwise would not have been able to participate in Coastal Drift, an 830-mile bike ride, from Maine to New York City. Along the way, riders stop in towns, both rural and urban, where they will stay in campsites and churches, while volunteering to assist nonprofits in building affordable housing.
In order to prepare for the intense trip, the riders are required to participate in two Build Days where they learn the skills they will need to construct houses during their journey. The first Build Day took place in late March.
The bankers were able to not only meet these high-spirited, high-impact volunteers but to get their own hands dirty.
“Together, we spent a great day learning and building,” McGill said.
McGill said he discovered the Bike & Build nonprofit because of sheer proximity. The Bike & Build office is located right by the bank’s Roxborough branch. But the connection was far more than serendipity. The bankers and the bikers found they shared a core mission.
“We like what they’re doing,” McGill said matter-of-factly.
The same can be said for Frank Toohey, Sr., East River Bank’s Vice President of Commercial Lending and Project Team Leader, who has been with East River Bank almost “since Day One.” The bank opened in January 2006 and he joined in April of that year.
“We do business in the communities,” Toohey said. “We give out loans and take in deposits. It’s only right that we step up and help the community as a whole. It’s very, very important.”
“Everybody takes turns volunteering. It’s something the bank feels very strongly about,” Toohey said.
Toohey can often be seen working under a tent at a sun-splashed festival in trendy Manayunk or mingling at an open-air summer concert series in Gorgas Park.
Toohey said most bank personnel live within a few blocks of a bank branch. They often walk to work, passing by eye-opening extremes of luxury juxtaposed with squalor every day. “This is not just where we work. It’s where we live.”
McGill said he was personally involved in the committee building in Mantua by University City last year. They worked on a single house, part of 12 houses in a two-block radius.
The laborers did demolition work, so it was “pretty messy,” McGill said.
He said the bank makes 90 percent of its loans in the Philadelphia proper, so they consistently act on their desire to invest in the communities that invest in them.
It’s a simple equation. “If they’re successful, we’re successful.”
“We see ourselves as the economic engine that makes Philadelphia a better place to live and work,” McGill said, “and to give residents a better quality of life.”
The day of the build, McGill met the owner, an older gentleman who exhibited mild hoarding tendencies. Clutter was everywhere. It was “upsetting” to see the conditions in which the owner was living, he said.
“We didn’t know how he got there,” McGill said, but knowing they had helped his home condition, “we felt better when we left.”
Still, the bankers knew that “this person’s circumstances hadn’t changed much,” despite their impassioned efforts. It was a painful reminder of the magnitude of the problem. That sobering realization keeps them going and doing.
“It brings home very clearly the need for quality housing and supports for the low- to moderate –income,” McGill said.
“You see people living without heat, with holes in the floor, with very old and antiquated fixtures and appliances. It really makes you think about opportunity, education and jobs and how it all meshes together,” McGill said.
The area around East Falls is relatively affluent and stable, McGill said. Old City has a young, urban vibe populated by up-and-comers. Hipster bars, contemporary art galleries, niche restaurants, yoga studios, designer cupcake boutiques, and upscale consignment galleries line the stone-fronted, bridge-backed streets.
While Roxborough is home to many more blue-collar workers, Old City is more like Manayunk, populated by scores of recent college graduates and ultra-modern, upwardly mobile young couples just starting a family.
“The bank is a for-profit business, but our mission is to make areas we serve better for everyone living there.”
McGill is a third generation banker whose grandfather was a Depression-era banker.
As the father of three teens himself, ages 17, 15, and 13, he carries forth his ancestors’ mantra of doing well through doing good.
Part of that mission extends to include the YouthBuild charter school in Philadelphia.
Sarah Peterson, Communications and Development Associate for YouthBuild Philadelphia, said they serve high school dropouts age 18 to 21. Knowing that 40 percent of Philly high school students drop out of school, the program gives students a second chance through a blend of academic, vocational training and career counseling in a two-year program.
Operating since 1992, the school gives students the opportunity to learn construction, health care, child care, or business and customer service through a café at school.
The brick and mortar school, situated at Broad and Girard streets, finds abandoned homes – ”brownsites” – and uses them as training and service sites.
Peterson said students have been working on two houses for the past two years.
These were homes “left to rot for years and years and years,” she said, with missing roofs, decaying walls, and exposed wires.
When they are done, their work will lead to a livable home for a needy family, which will be energy-efficient and hopefully achieve a LEED Platinum certification.
YouthBuild Philadelphia enrolls 215 students annually; all are part-time AmeriCorps members.
Peterson said they work with nonprofits and criminal justice organizations for referrals to find students. Word of mouth, radio ads, and signs on SEPTA buses also attract students.
To find homes, they work with community development corporations. The supply of houses in need of repair always far exceeds the number of houses that the students, who all hail from Philly, can fix.
Funds are received from public and private organizations – the U.S. Department of Labor, public education funding, local and national foundations, and corporations – including East River Bank.
The school boasts over 2,000 graduates since the early 1990s.
Successful graduates receive a diploma, an AmeriCorps stipend, and industry certification in construction.
Their home project will be sold to first-time, low-income homebuyers.
Peterson emphasizes that the end game is not just a diploma. “It’s what the diploma unlocks for them,” Peterson says.
From the day students enter YouthBuild, the staff talks about the day AFTER YouthBuild. In the aftermath of graduation, graduates are assigned a counselor to help with college and career, developing interview skills, resumes, and filling out FAFSA forms.
Like many adults at the facility, Peterson is also a mentor “cheering them on when things are going well.”
She said hundreds of YouthBuilds operate nationwide, like the one in the City of Brotherly Love.
When YouthBuild students teach community volunteers helping on a project, many of them have an “aha moment,” Peterson said. It is a “big and exciting moment for our students” – an epiphany – to see how far they’ve come and how far they can go.
Bike & Build often awakens that same epiphany in its riders.
“For some of these kids, affordable housing is their passion. The second component is we engage other young people through cycling,” said Justin Villere, Director of Operations and Outreach for Bike & Build, who met on a job site recently with PACB and East River representatives.
Many young people haven’t found their passion yet for other social issues, but biking exposes them to the cause of affordable housing, Villere said.
For 10 to 11 weeks, Bike & Build volunteers leave from the east and bike west. Every fourth or fifth day, they stop and build along the way.
They also fundraise. Money they raise goes into a grant pool, from which they decide how to distribute the funds. Habitat for Humanity or YouthBuild may get $6,000 here, $4,000 here, $500 there.
“We work with 18- to 25-year olds who are riders,” Villere said.
It’s a “neat symbiosis” between YouthBuild and Bike & Build,” he continued. It’s the same age group, the same goals, the same passion for social change.
“When you’ve got 32 pairs of hands working together, you can get a lot done in a day.”
Nick DiFrancesco, President and CEO of PACB lauded the work, noting “This is truly amazing. You are building a service culture.”
Bikers have the opportunity to witness first-hand the varying cultures in different states. They hit a new town every night, and stay in places for free – churches, YMCAs, community centers.
They do laundry every three days, shower, eat together, and often still have the youthful energy to go out on the town at night.
“It’s a live hard, play hard, work hard summer,” said Villere.
East River Bank is “kind of a special group for us,” he stated. “We don’t have many corporate sponsors. We want sponsors who mirror our values. We have guarded our culture ethic pretty closely.”
“We bank with East River Bank personally,” he said.
“They support everything. You always see their name everywhere.”
This year, East River Bank is supporting YouthBuild Ride, in which bicyclists travel from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C.. Cyclists will bike in Philly, drive to D.C., then bike in D.C. After weaving through the marble, granite and limestone-filled capital, they will tour the area’s affordable housing projects with Manna, Inc., a local nonprofit developer.
Said Toohey, “They’re very enthusiastic kids.”
“It gives me goosebumps. It really does.”
He looks around. “This neighborhood may not be the best in the world. But you start on the corner, then these two houses, then you go down the block.”
“You build one house at a time, you get there.”
And in a meaningful twist, the kids say Youthbuild is like a second home to them.
East River Bank and its branches in East Falls, Old City and Roxborough help make that home for kids possible. And like the links on their bike chains, they then make homes for others.
The bank partners with numerous organizations in these neighborhoods through sponsorships, financial support and volunteering.
East River supports more than 60 area community organizations. Nearly every employee at the bank gives at least a day’s worth of service to a community organization, and many give significantly more time, McGill said. From 5Ks to festivals, reading to children, and dancing on the Falls Bridge, “we love being connected to great organizations,” he said.
As Bike & Builders cycle for service, the region’s next generation of leaders build themselves, build homes, and build their communities.
It is the way the East River Bank flows.
This article can be found featured in the June 2015 issue of Transactions. Not a subscriber? Visit the Transactions page on this website or call PACB at 717-231-7447 to start receiving the magazine.