Back in 1996 when Neiger Green was a 13-year-old Southwest Middle School student, her track coach approached with what sounded like a fun idea: how about joining a group of young people called the Dream Team who planned to bicycle across Georgia during the summer?
“Yes!” said Green. The trip sounded like a piece of cake.
Later, two days into her 400-mile journey, after encountering Georgia heat, mosquitoes, rain and bone-deep fatigue, she had second thoughts.
But with the help and support of her team, her mentors and the organization called Bicycle Ride Across Georgia (BRAG), Green completed the seven-day trip. The trip also completed her, in many ways.
It gave her the confidence to tackle a big task, the temerity to jump into the unknown, and the understanding that working with a team can make many things possible.
“If you go into BRAG and you’re timid,” she said recently, “by the time you come out of BRAG, you probably have a louder voice; you probably hold your shoulders back a little more; you probably keep that chin up a little higher.”
On June 1, the 40th annual Bicycle Ride Across Georgia will begin. It takes a different path each year. This year's journey starts in Ellijay, where about 1,000 two-wheeled adventurers will prepare to venture south to Darien and the sea, camping along the way.
Within that group will be the Dream Team, a collection of middle school and high school students recruited to join BRAG. Most of the Dream Team members are minorities, or are from families who might not have been able to afford the trip, or had no bicycling gear, or any experience camping.
The Dream Team takes care of that, seeking sponsors to provide bicycles, clothing, camping gear and financial support, and staging training rides throughout the spring in preparation for the big journey. The stated goal for this hardy crew is “to dream beyond their circumstances and grow greater by the mile.”
The most important thing the kids need to bring to the journey is a willingness to try, and a love of cycling, said Atiba Mbiwan, 59, who for 24 years out of its 25-year history, has been the driving wheel behind the Dream Team program.
Mbiwan, a Grant Park resident, has helped grow the group from a dozen to 100 kids, and he has created satellite Dream Team programs in Madison, Dublin, Macon, Milledgeville and in the Brunswick area. He has also expanded the group’s activities to continue through the year. One of their non-BRAG odysseys took place in 2014, when the Dream Team celebrated its 20th anniversary with a bike ride from the King Center in Atlanta to the King Monument in Washington, D.C.
As the BRAG event approached this week, Mbiwan spoke about the Dream Team during a breakfast meeting at the O.K. Cafe. A father of three grown children, he has a bit of salt and pepper in his beard, and the lean build (and appetite) that goes with biking 100 miles at a time.
Mbiwan is the associate director of the Zeist Foundation, a philanthropic group that gives about $8-10 million a year to organizations that help underserved children, and before that, he served in Atlanta’s Task Force for the Homeless. During that earlier tenure, he encountered a distant cousin whose family had collapsed, and who finally found himself homeless. Mbiwan reflected that his own family remained intact during his childhood in Jamaica, Queens, and that he had nine aunts and uncles in the immediate neighborhood.
Family is critical, and it should extend beyond blood relations, he said, polishing off a plate of scrambled eggs and cheese, biscuits and grits. “One of the things I’ve been thinking about the Dream Team is that we create a new family for kids. You can see it; you can feel it.”
His kids learn about sticking together, drafting off the leader, taking turns leading, and leaving no one behind.
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“A long-distance bike ride is a metaphor for life: You can’t enjoy the downhills until you go uphill,” he said. “It’s easy to quit, easy to get off your bike and give up. But you can’t do that, because when you get to the top, you will appreciate where you’ve come from.”
The experience often leaves a deep impression on the Dream Teamers. Neiger Green—now Neiger Green Patrick, and a Dream Team board member—worked in Liberia with the CDC as part of a response team during the Ebola crisis of 2014. It was a frightening time, but the confidence gained during BRAG helped her face the challenge. “It allowed me to get comfortable in uncomfortable situations.”
BRAG can also spark a lifelong love of bicycles. Larry McGirt was a 13-year-old Dream Team recruit in Dublin. Now he’s a 23-year-old Dream Team mentor, a Dublin police officer, and part of the town’s bicycle patrol.
McGirt gave the group a police escort during its recent training ride in Dublin. Being on that first trip, “It had a huge impact,” he said.
If You Go:
The Bicycle Ride Across Georgia takes place June 1-7, from Ellijay to Darien. Online registration has closed for the event, but cyclists can register at the last minute onsite.
On Saturday, June 1, cyclists arrive in Ellijay. They can register from 2-8 p.m., June 1 at Ellijay Elementary School, 32 McCutchen St, Ellijay, GA, 30540. There are concerts, river rides and other activities planned for that day. The ride begins June 1, and continues through Saturday, June 8. The $400 cost covers snacks and water at rest stops, rides in the sag wagon for tuckered-out cyclists, camping facilities, repairs, and other amenities. For information: brag.org.