WINCHESTER — What began as a simple idea to ride across the country and raise awareness about homelessness turned into a national media sensation that raised more money for the Winchester Rescue Mission than anything before.
“It was a phenomenal trip,” Brandan Thomas, the mission’s executive director, said on Friday, his first day back at work. “I was blown away by the support.”
Thomas first came up with what he called the “crazy idea” of a cross-country motorcycle ride in March, but he assumed it would never happen.
He couldn’t have been more wrong.
His idea became known as the Rescue Ride. By the time it rolled out of Winchester in the early morning hours of Sept. 27, enough corporate and private donations had already come in to fully fund the 14-day, $24,000 trip, thanks in part to extensive national media coverage that included an interview with celebrity physician Drew Pinsky (aka Dr. Drew) on KABC Radio in Los Angeles.
The ride also peaked the interest of a film crew that paid its own way to join the Rescue Ride from start to finish. Thomas said the crew is now seeking funds to complete the documentary and sell it to Netflix, HBO or another streaming or broadcast service.
“There’s about 150 hours of content,” Thomas said. “We’ve got to build a [theatrical] trailer out of that, then take that trailer to find somebody who will hopefully invest in this. ... The goal is to have a trailer by the 15th of November.”
When the Rescue Ride left Winchester, Thomas said dozens of area residents on motorcycles accompanied the riders out of town. Along the route to Los Angeles, dozens of others joined in for short distances, but only nine people — Jay Smith, Sarah Williams, Andre Fontaine, Richard Hawkins, David Calhoun Jr. and Richard “Woody” Woodruff of Winchester, Jeff Horton of Manassas, Mike McDonald of Woodbridge, and Jeremy Lundy of Inwood, W.Va. — were with Thomas from start to finish.
Pastor Brad Hill of Grace Downtown of Winchester church was part of the Rescue Ride from Winchester to Denver, but had to return home to officiate a wedding. Hill then flew to Los Angeles to reunite with the Rescue Riders at the end of their journey.
“Brad was a huge help because he drove the film crew, and that was a surprisingly tough job,” Thomas said. “He had to get close to us and match speeds, and deal with truck drivers behind us telling him he’s Number 1.”
Along the way, the Rescue Ride stopped to visit or spend the night at homeless shelters in 14 cities — Roanoke; Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis, Tenn.; Little Rock, Fort Smith and Fayetteville, Ark.; Bartlesville, Okla.; Wichita and Colby, Kan.; Denver; Albuquerque, N.M.; Phoenix; and Las Vegas, Nev. — before reaching its final destination on Oct. 8 in Los Angeles.
“Absolutely breathtaking, and not in a good way,” Thomas said of L.A.’s Skid Row. “It literally would take your breath away because of the smell. ... You have 5,000 individuals experiencing homelessness in a 50-square-block area. You’re literally stepping over human feces on the ground, seeing people talking to themselves. It is the most overwhelming thing you can experience.”
In Bartlesville, the Rescue Riders sat down with a shelter resident who was depressed and contemplating suicide. They listened to his story, shared words of encouragement and gave him a Rescue Ride hat and T-shirt.
“They messaged us after we left to let us know that we had no idea how much it changed his perspective, got him excited and changed his whole attitude,” Thomas said. “To have a group of bikers roll into a rescue mission and talk to the guests one on one, I underestimated how awesome that would be.”
Throughout the journey, print and broadcast journalists came out to report on the Rescue Ride.
“We did news stories in Roanoke, Knoxville, Memphis, Wichita, Phoenix, Vegas and L.A.,” Thomas said. “That was pretty awesome, and it gave publicity to the rescue missions we were at.”
The media attention also helped fuel an effort to raise money for the Winchester Rescue Mission. Thomas started with a goal of collecting $50,000, but after expenses were paid, he ended up with approximately $75,000. That makes the Rescue Ride the biggest fundraiser in the history of the Winchester Rescue Mission, which has an annual operating budget of $250,000 and houses 40 people a year.
“We’re going to use $50,000 of it to work toward hiring a mental health professional to work on site for the folks that live here,” Thomas said. “The rest of the money will go toward operating costs. We don’t get any government money or anything like that. It’s all fundraising and donations.”
The ultimate goal of the Winchester Rescue Mission’s staff is to stop providing shelter to people who have fallen on hard times.
“We’re not in the ‘warehousing of people’ business,” Thomas said. “The goal is transitioning people out of homelessness to living on their own, doing what it is they dreamed of doing.”
As soon as Thomas returned to work Friday morning, he sat down with staff to discuss how the programs he saw at other homeless shelters could help the Winchester Rescue Mission reach that goal.
For example, he saw culinary programs in Tennessee and Kansas where homeless people learned valuable job skills while earning an income catering private events. Maggie Peterson, a volunteer who oversees the commercial-grade kitchen at the Rescue Mission, offered to head up a local culinary initiative.
“We’re not here to enable destructive lifestyles, but to have people dream about the lives they want and see those dreams come true,” he said. “Anybody’s welcome to stay here, but they have to be willing to make a change and move forward.”
Thomas believes the lessons he learned on the Rescue Ride will make it easier for the men and women served by the mission to get their lives back on track.
“I think we are positioned to accomplish far more,” he said. “We’ve got the support of people around us.”
After two weeks of sleeping in homeless shelters, followed by another week of sightseeing, visiting family and volunteering on Skid Row, Thomas said it was wonderful to come home to his wife and three young children.
“When I saw my kids for the first time, my little girl hugged me and said, ‘Daddy!’” he said. “She kept touching my face to make sure it was me.”
As nice as it is to be home, Thomas said he already misses the Harley-Davidson Ultra Limited motorcycle that Grove’s Winchester Harley-Davidson loaned him for the Rescue Ride.
“The bike really made the trip, man,” he said with a smile. “I cried like a school girl when we loaded it up on the trailer.”
It’s possible that Thomas and the Harley will be reunited.
“I’ve already had people hit me up and offer to ride next year, and I’ve already had people hit me up and offer to sponsor next year,” he said. “There’s a pretty high probability we’ll do it again, just with a more northern route.
For more photos and stories from the Rescue Ride, visit the Winchester Rescue Mission’s Facebook page at facebook.com/winchesterrescuemission.