Chloe’ Bagley | Staff Writer

“The guys were finishing up in this little town in the mountains called Marblemount, Washington where the population was like, 400…I came up to a little coffee shop and asked the owner if she knew of any churches in the area or somewhere we could just put our sleeping bags for the night…she offered to let the guys sleep under the canopy of the coffee shop, and then I heard this old man say, ‘Or you could stay at my place.’”  This is how Reese Hopper, the 2015 van driver for the Ride for Water campaign, began to describe how they found lodging with a man named Jim on the first night of the trip almost two years ago.  

Every May since 2013, a group of APU students gather together to take the trip of a lifetime.  Over the course of 50 days, the students ride 3,200 miles on bikes across the country starting in Seattle and ending in New York City. Their goal: to help end the global water crisis that has left 663 million people without sanitary water. But the cyclists can’t make it across the country alone. While they ride, someone needs to look for housing, carry supplies and help transport the cyclists. So every year, a student volunteers to take on the responsibilities of becoming the crew’s van driver.  

22-year-old APU alum Reese Hopper is one of these brave students who dedicated his summer vacation in 2015 to making sure five cyclists woke up on time every morning and had a place to sleep every night. However, the responsibilities of a Ride for Water van driver are much more extensive. According to Hopper, a typical day started with him waking up around 7:30 am and putting on music to get everyone up.  He would then head to the kitchen to start breakfast for the guys and aim to get the day’s ride started by 9 a.m.  After getting everyone going and driving to the first break point, the difficult part of Hopper’s job started.

The entire ride is roughly planned by each city the group will most likely be stopping in.  But depending on riding conditions on any given day, there is no way to tell where the group will end up.  It is the van driver’s job to spend his day finding somewhere for the group to stay by the time they are done riding for the day.  Usually, they have a list of contacts for the predicted cities that include churches or family friends.  

“We stayed with all denominations and with people of all economic and political differences,” Hopper said. “But what they all had in common was their hospitality to travelers, people who would drop everything on a dime to make a spaghetti dinner for six strangers.”

War Stories

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Sometimes though, the guys ended up nowhere near where they were planning and they had to rely on strangers like Jim, who were willing to offer their homes for a night.  “I majored in communication studies so I nailed this 40 second elevator pitch that said who we were and what we were looking for,” Hopper said. This was the most nerve-racking part of the day for Hopper not because of the calling but because he was afraid people would not say yes.  The van drivers spend hours every day in the car cold-calling churches or searching for places online in order to find somewhere for the crew to stay every night and on occasion they get no response.  The very first night of the trip Hopper found himself in this situation, willing to find housing almost anywhere. This is when an older gentlemen overheard his conversation with a coffee shop owner and offered his “spacious home,” which turned out to be a tiny apartment.

Jim directed the guys to his apartment and set a fire for them. He let them lay their sleeping bags on the floor of the living room and proceeded to carry on a conversation for the remainder of the night.  He was so excited to have guests that he sat up in his armchair telling war stories until the guys were ready for bed. “We fell asleep to an old man with a big beard just watching us,” Hopper said, “as the trip went on we never stayed in a place that strange again.”

Sweaters Save Lives

Every year the students are astonished by how many people respond to their need for housing, but every single night they end their day with a roof over their head.

“I learned a lot of good lessons about how that whole situation relates to my faith…as a Christian I believe we are prized by God and that he will take care of us, but that was put to the test, and actually having to trust in that for the first time was really difficult.”

On the 2015 trip the group encountered a woman named Felicia who allowed them to sleep on their church floor. Hopper had spent his day calling churches in the area to see if anyone had room but no one answered. He started to feel discouraged, but after lots of prayer he received a phone call from Felicia.  It was a Sunday and Felicia worked in the office of Seventh Day Adventist Church, so no one was working. However, she had forgotten her sweater the day before and went back to get it when she saw the guys’ message on the church phone and called back.  Felicia and her husband made dinner for the group and spent the evening getting to know them and asking about their campaign. A month later the couple gave $2,500 to RFW.

“The coolest part for me was that she forgot her sweater and our paths crossed and they were moved to give to our campaign and because of that 80 lives were saved…because she forgot her sweater,” Hopper said, “God can orchestrate things in such perfect time that forgotten sweaters can save lives.”

Mark the Pilot

Later in the trip, the guys were in Ohio nearing the Pennsylvania border. They had planned out a much-needed rest day and were staying with a team member’s family friends. The first night at the house, the homeowner shared with Hopper that a friend of his owned a plane and wanted to take the guys for a ride the next morning. That evening the friend called and arranged a time for the guys to come out.  The following afternoon they were directed to a beautiful home in the Ohio woods and there is where they met Mark Mark told the guys there was a slack-line and 80-foot rope swing set up in the backyard for them along with quads and dirt bikes for them to ride around the property. His wife had made everyone dinner and Mark began taking the guys up in the plane in twos while the others played on the property.

“The guys that came out of the plane were just ecstatic…almost crying of joy,” Hopper said, “It was just beautiful…rural Pennsylvania and everything was crystal clear.”  During Hopper’s ride in the small four-seater plane, Mark asked if he wanted to try flying, to which he immediately said yes.  He then asked the boys if they wanted to do some tricks in the plane and began cranking the plane sideways and bringing into free-fall.

Hopper described his time with Mark and his family as one of the most incredible nights of his life. “To do that for complete strangers that you called the night before, that was what made it so incredible for me because I knew there was no way I could ever repay him,” Hopper said, “That still rattles through my brain sometimes; what is my airplane? What is something incredible that I can give to somebody else that they could never repay?”       

Hopper sacrificed his summer to serve his friends and they all met and were moved by so many people along the way. The guys saw every individual who gave, whether it be their money, their time or their homes, as an immense blessing and answer to prayer. “It was the trip of a lifetime and the summer of a lifetime,” Hopper said, “but it was just hard enough to remind us that we weren’t doing it to have the summer of a lifetime, we were doing it to be a small part in solving the global water crisis.”