Bike & Build: Hitting the road for housing 

click to enlarge First-year IUPUI law student Brittany Simmerman works with the Bike & Build program. - MARK LEE
  • First-year IUPUI law student Brittany Simmerman works with the Bike & Build program.
  • Mark Lee

Bike & Build participants spend their summers trekking across the U.S. building houses along the way.

For Brittany Simmerman, a first-year law student at Indiana University Law-Indianapolis, the program offered invigorating summers that instilled in her a deep devotion to the affordable housing cause.

And now she is calling on Indy to support the non-profit organization made up of young adults who bike cross-country and build homes in some of America's poorest areas.

The ages of Bike & Build participants range from 18 to 25. The program wants young adults who just finished high school or undergraduate work because "the housing issue is something our generation is going to have to deal with. Bike & Build is educating leaders and since we're young, we're still impressionable and open to helping," Simmerman said.

Last summer, her first in Bike & Build, was enough to hook her for life. The program is "like a drug, you crave Bike & Build," she said. Still, she cautions, it is not for everyone and as it requires "a certain brand of crazy."

Why bike instead of driving across the country to pursue building projects? Biking, although more strenuous, allows Bike & Builders to raise awareness of housing issues throughout the country. Every place the Bike & Build groups stop, they tell locals about their mission and the enormity of the housing crisis.

"This exponentially grows the cause, rather than staying local," Simmerman said.

Since Bike & Build requires its volunteers to bike across the country from Virginia to Oregon, the physical aspects of the program may appear to be the most challenging. But, Simmerman said, the mental stress affected her the most.

"There comes a point at around week seven when you're just mentally exhausted," she said. "You're doing so much and thinking so much that your mind just kind of poops out on you. We call this the Bike & Build plateau and at that point you just have to remind yourself why I'm doing this and why I'm here."

This mission empowered Simmerman to continue the strenuous task of providing the most in-need Americans with housing.

Simmerman's first awareness of housing issues developed during a church service trip to New Orleans, La., following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

"It really opened my eyes to see that not everyone lives like me," she said. "Not everyone is able to have a roof over their heads that's adequate. That kind of got the wheels turning."

After returning from New Orleans, the housing crisis hit home. In her native Terre Haute, Ind., floods wrecked extensive havoc in June 2008, which strengthened her resolve to help provide affordable housing in areas of need across the country.

Soon after, she joined Bike & Build.

One of the most moving moments she experienced on her Bike & Build tour last summer happened in the small town of Marlton, W. Va., where no more than 100 people lived in small shacks and poverty. When Bike & Build arrived, Marlton threw a potluck dinner and took up a collection for the program.

"It was the most amazing meal of my life; better than any fancy restaurant, better than anything," Simmerman said.

"It was all of these mountain people coming together, we had mashed potatoes and they made pizza and everything in the whole world that they could throw together and every single person from that town was there and it was the most touching thing because the people who have the least to give, give the most. That's one of the things you see on Bike & Build. When you're in little towns, those people will give you everything they have and more just to make you feel like you're one of them."

Simmerman is now preparing to embark on her second summer of Bike & Build and her main challenge now is finding sponsors who will provide funding to Bike & Build.

"Not many people are aware of this cause, so the biggest hurdle is getting people to listen initially," Simmerman said. "Every organization that I've talked to and has actually listened to my spiel has been unbelievable as far as fundraising. So it's really just getting people to listen for fifteen minutes."

One of the most successful fundraising events Simmerman hosted was a Bingo Night with St. Mary-of-the-Woods nuns in which she raised $400 for Bike & Build. To host these events, Simmerman must send out letters to family, friends, and local business asking for their support. Currently, Simmerman estimates that she has sent over 200 letters in hopes of finding more sponsors. The Indiana Ice aided Simmerman's fundraising efforts by welcoming her to bike at a game to raise awareness. CMH Builders have also responded to Simmerman's cause by offering to double her fundraising total.

In addition, Simmerman hopes to simply raise awareness about affordable housing and she is focusing her law studies on a track that will allow her to work on housing issues when she graduates. She urges participation in local volunteer efforts, such as Habitat for Humanity and Rebuilding Together, an organization that refurbishes homes for those in need, particularly for elderly people.

"Just be aware, affordable housing isn't just building houses, it's knowing how many people are affected by this crisis," she said. "Just go to homeless shelters and listen to people's stories. That's the biggest thing people want is for someone to just listen."

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