BEL AIR, Md. — A 24-year-old from Bel Air, Maryland, made it his goal to spend the summer of 2017 traveling over 4,000 miles across the United States to help raise money for pediatric heart disease.
While he may have finished the ride of a lifetime at the end of July, he continues to make efforts to reach his fundraising goal.
Spencer Buchness, an amateur long-distance cyclist, quit his job as a graphic designer to begin his nearly three-month journey by bike on April 22 in Ocean City, Maryland, with the goal of reaching San Francisco.
He traveled through 14 states, raising $15,000 along the way for the Save a Child’s Heart foundation, an organization he volunteered with in Israel.
Buchness said that although he didn’t train for the trip, it was one he had always wanted to partake in.
“I was staring at a map of the world one day and I realized I could go anywhere and I think a lot of people forget that,” he said. “This ride is something I’ve always wanted to do for the last three years, so I risked it.”
He pedaled through Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California.
On average, he said he spent about six to seven hours per day on his bike, riding through the various weather conditions like hail, thunderstorms and tornado warnings, experiencing extreme highs and lows in temperatures.
“I don’t stop unless I physically can’t keep going,” Buchness said. “I’ll be riding up a hill, yelling at myself to keep pedaling, with sweat in my eyes … but right when you want to walk, you think about those children affected by heart disease, thinking OK, all right, we’re doing this.”
Buchness said he chose to raise money for the Save a Child’s Heart foundation after spending the summer of 2016 in Israel volunteering for a nonprofit organization and seeing that they were a life-changing organization.
“When I went there, I was just going there to learn about the organization,” he said. “I didn’t realize my life would be changed that day.”
Save a Child’s Heart foundation is a nonprofit organization created 20 years ago by an American surgeon who was working overseas in Korea with the military, Rabbi David Litwack, the executive director of the U.S. office for the Save a Child’s Heart foundation, told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service.
“He realized that what’s easily treatable in Western countries is a death sentence in others,” Litwack said about the founder.
Litwack said the organization’s headquarters in Israel is run by volunteers. There they can house up to 25 children and their mothers at a time and provide treatment for congenital heart disease. The organization has expanded to train other pediatric cardiac surgeons and medical teams, so they can perform surgeries in their own countries.
Buchness said when he met the children and their families he realized how real their situations and hardships were and how the organization is working to help relieve them.
“They’re lucky and they’ve struggled and this bike ride is my struggle,” Buchness said. “So, this is for them and for me.”
Litwack said Buchness’s journey is unique compared to other campaigns he has seen.
“Frequently we will have students raise money for Save a Child’s heart, but they’re usually projects that are short term,” Litwack said. “It’s unusual to have something so challenging and developing over a long period of time.”
Litwack mentioned sports tournaments and marathons as common fundraisers he has seen from supporters.
While it is an unusual way to raise money, Litwack said, Buchness’s campaign is multidimensional.
“For us it’s great that he’s raising money to save a child, but it’s equally important to make aware the fact that congenital heart disease is such a serious problem and there’s a very strong educational component (to his campaign),” he said.
Buchness kept in contact with his supporters on his Facebook page, Pedal to the Heartbeat, which had over 700 followers as of Aug. 10. He uploaded posts, photos, and videos and used Facebook live to update those following along on his journey.
In these updates, followers saw Buchness in all stages of raw emotion: optimism, defeat, excitement, exhaustion, terror and gratitude.
His posts showed his amazement when he came into contact with different animals, like cows, turtles, sheep, a bear and even whales, sometimes stopping to “moo” or “baa” at them. They also showed his appreciation for simple things in life, like cereal and a warm shower, frequently giving two thumbs up to the camera and getting many in return from those he met at various stops along his route.
Stephen Fosdick, a resident of Idaho who housed Buchness during his trip, said that he and his roommate have followed Buchness’s journey via Facebook and text messaging.
“We are impressed with the (charity) he is riding for and hope he is successful in raising funds for them,” Fosdick said.
Fosdick explained that Buchness contacted them after seeing their listing on warmshowers.org, a website used for cyclists to find a place to stay at night. They treated Buchness to dinner, breakfast and drove him to the highway. While Fosdick and his roommate were on an outing in Oregon, they met up with Buchness again.
Melanie Kramer, a resident of Fort Collins, Colorado, met Buchness in Israel the summer he volunteered with Save a Child’s Heart Foundation and said when she found out he was biking through her town, she offered him a place to stay.
“He stayed for a few days to rest and fix his bike, so I took him around to all the local stops and breweries,” Kramer said. “What he is doing is absolutely amazing and I am so excited to see him cross the finish line.”
Buchness’s ride was far from easy as he hit various roadblocks, like run-ins with dogs, close calls with cars and tractor-trailers, a flooded basement, unkempt roads, construction and a mixed-up route. He even lost Miles, a teddy bear his mom gave him early on in his journey as a travel companion, hesitating a few moments before jumping into what he called freezing water to save the stuffed animal.
Buchness admitted to having negative and discouraging thoughts throughout the duration of his trip, but wasn’t afraid to ask for words of reassurance and prayers from the followers on his page.
“This might’ve been an easy ride for someone you know, or for a friend or for you, but for me it’s the single hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my own personal accomplishments,” Buchness said.
Throughout his passage, Buchness emphasized faith, referring to God as the “big guy” and frequently thanking God. In his videos, viewers also saw glimpses of the people Buchness encountered along the way, some of which he deemed “road angels,” people who stopped to give him water, buy him food, offer a ride, provide him shelter or say a prayer and wish him well.
Karen Ader Berry, a truck driver who, traveling through Kansas with her husband on a job, met Buchness in Ellis, Kansas, at a restaurant late at night in early June. Ader Berry said they overheard Buchness on a phone call to his dad.
“We heard him say something about getting a ride because the roads he had been on were dirt and he couldn’t pedal very well on them,” she said.
Ader Berry said after he hung up, they struck up a conversation with them and he ended up eating dinner with them.
“I felt an instant connection with him,” she said. “He is warm, open, passionate, caring and very funny,” she said.
Ader Berry said that while they do have financial constraints, they were so touched by Buchness, they paid for his dinner and continued to follow his journey on Facebook.
While his dad biked with him the first two days of his trip, he spent most of the journey riding solo. He celebrated Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and his sister’s 21st birthday away from home. He sought shelter from family, friends, and strangers, in churches, motels, hotels, his tent, a fire station and a police station.
Buchness decorated his bike, which weighed around 117 pounds at one point in the beginning of his ride, with a Maryland flag, an American flag, a flag representing a company he founded that sells bike-themed accessories, called Married to My Bike, and a flag representing the Save a Child’s Heart foundation.
“I’m hoping that what Spencer is doing is going to inspire other people to follow his lead and find ways to help us save the lives of more children and educate more people about the scope of the problem,” Litwack said.
Buchness reached San Francisco on July 22.
As of Aug. 10, Buchness’s gofundme page had raised $7,150 and now that he is back in Maryland he hopes to partner with local organizations to continue to bring awareness to the organization and raise money.
He believes he will reach his goal of $19,000, with $4,000 of it dedicated to funding his travels.
“I can foresee us raising $15,000 to save one child’s heart and the impact we will have and it just makes me really, really happy,” he said.