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'RAGBRAI is just the reward': Dream Team celebrates 25 years of changing lives through biking

  • 27 July, 2022
  • Philip Joens

Dream Team riders Marissa Trees and Gentry Hughes take part in a training ride from Des Moines to Cumming, Thursday, June 30, 2022.
Photo credit: Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register

When Gentry Hughes’ bike odometer rolled over to 1,000 miles outside Des Moines’ Water Works Park June 30, he raised his fists in celebration.

Gentry, 13, is a member of the Dream Team, a nonprofit cycling club for disadvantaged youths in central Iowa. The program teaches kids life lessons by helping them hit cycling goals — like racking up the minimum 1,000 miles of cycling beginning in March that allows them to participate in RAGBRAI.

As the Dream Team celebrates its 25th anniversary Tuesday 7/26 on the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, it is continuing the mission laid out by its founder, late RAGBRAI director Jim Green, in 1997.

Every year, Dream Team members who qualify to participate in RAGBRAI get a free bike if they complete the ride’s 450-plus miles. But the real rewards come as they achieve their personal goals.

For Gentry, on this 38-mile ride last month, it was getting to the 1,000-mile mark with most of the summer left to go.

“Way to go, Gentry!” one mentor shouted as the teen shared his news.

Gentry, whose parents adopted him and his two siblings out of foster care in 2020, rides like a bolt of electricity. As the Dream Team began workouts in March, he said he wanted to ride with the group because it had been hard for him to make friends or spend time with them during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Four months later, he raced through the training ride from Water Works Park to Cumming and through Walnut Woods State Park, enjoying the camaraderie of a group he’s spent so much time with.

“I’ve made a couple friends,” he said.

“He’s got lots of energy,” said one of them, Marissa Trees, 18, adding that Gentry is “usually pretty positive all the time.”

‘RAGBRAI is just the reward’

The Dream Team is open to Des Moines-area youths 13 to 18 who face challenges and could benefit from its focus on mentorship, fitness and personal achievement. It’s a nonprofit, funded by donations from cyclists and partners like RAGBRAI, Bike World and the YMCA.

Dream Team members start workouts in March at the Wellmark YMCA. After the weather warms, they go on bike rides each Monday, Thursday and Saturday until RAGBRAI starts.

They must regularly attend the ride and rack up at least 1,000 miles to go on RAGBRAI. 

“To the Dream Team, RAGBRAI isn’t just a bike ride; it’s a series of life experiences and goal setting,” said Frank Owens, who led the Dream Team in 1998.

That is still true today, said Jeff Vangendren, who will be the Dream Team’s executive director next year.

“RAGBRAI is just the reward,” Vangendren said. “We become friends with them and provide them a safe place to be themselves and shut the world out and ride on the bike.”

Green’s widow, Judy, said he was on a bike ride in another state when he saw a “Dream Team” comprised of people who excelled academically. She told her husband about it.

“He liked the concept, but he wanted it to go the opposite way,” she said. “He wanted it to be for those who wouldn’t ever have a chance to do this.”

The Dream Team is a big part of the legacy of her husband, who died three years ago, she said. In the early years, team members would ride to their home at Sun Valley Lake, southwest of Osceola, to camp and swim.

“It’s a great program that we always felt touched the kids that needed to be touched by it,” Judy Green said.

‘The transformation is remarkable’

Dream Team members must be referred to the team by counselors, the courts system or other means, Vangendren said. Some come from foster care, and the Dream Team helps provide them “a sense of family,” he said. Others have troubled home lives and need a place to build a support network.

Often they are kids who’ve had trouble relating to other people. Trees, who’s going into her senior year at Woodward-Granger High School, found herself in that situation when she was referred to the Dream Team by her therapist at age 12. She  struggled with her confidence and could be shy.

“I liked it because at the time she didn’t have a lot of friends,” said her father, Kevin Trees. “It just gets them out there socially interacting.”

During six years of riding with the Dream Team, she has become a leader, said Executive Director Brian O’Leary. 

“It was hard to even get her to call out when we’re riding our bikes and you practice ‘on your left.’ You couldn’t hear Marissa,” O’Leary said, referring to the warning bikers give when they pass pedestrians or other riders. “Today, someone gets hurt, she pulls over and asks if you’re OK and talks them through it. The transformation is remarkable.”

These days, Trees rides at the front of the group. A lime-green bow on the back of her helmet from her first RAGBRAI makes her stand out from 100 yards away.

“Let’s take a right here,” she said as she pointed her teammates down a trail.

Though she can still struggle with shyness, “At school I’m able to advocate for myself better when I need things or I’m not understanding something,” she said. “It’s easier for me to talk to people.”

Her younger brother Sid, 16, also struggles socially. During his first year in Dream Team this summer, he found a welcoming support network.

This year Sid did something his parents would not have imagined: He asked some friends to come over for a birthday party, his father said. It was a simple thing most people take for granted, but it almost made his parents cry.

“The Dream Team is really helping him,” Kevin Trees said. “For him it’s not about the physical fitness. It is strictly just learning how to interact with people.”

Vangendren pointed to Rachaelle Mendoza, 15, a sophomore at Joshua Christian Academy, as another example of the way the program helps young people. Rachaelle could not balance on a bike at the start of the spring.

“I get on a bike, and I fall to one side or the other,” she said in March.

Eventually she figured out how to ride by embracing her tendency to crash and preparing for it, Vangendren said.

“One training ride she showed up with knee pads on,” Vangendren said. “She rode with knee pads for a couple weeks, and now she is one of our stronger riders.”

The Dream Team asks a lot of participants like Rachaelle, said O’Leary — challenging them to go from learning to ride to biking across the state for seven days.

And the expectations continue during the ride. Dream Team members can’t “sag” out on even the longest, toughest days of the ride if they want to keep their bikes. So every member will have to pedal all 104 miles of Wednesday’s Century Day, from Emmetsburg to Mason City. 

“It’s such a big challenge to overcome,” O’Leary acknowledged.

But, he added, so is life.

“The recipe for success here is no different than the recipe that you need to be successful when you go to college or when you get a job or a career and you need to set goals and work diligently toward those goals,” he said.

On the June 30 training ride, Rachaelle felt nauseated. She was much quieter than usual, Vangendren said. Even so, she pushed up what team members dubbed “Soccer Mom Hill” near Walnut Woods State Park. Long done with the knee pads, she held her own, completing every mile.

Her experience embodied the Dream Team mission. When times get tough, it can be easy to quit, but with perseverance you can reach the ice cream stand around the corner — or the Mississippi River tire dip, with a bike that’s now yours and the confidence that you can meet a challenge that just months before you might have found hard to imagine.

Philip Joens is on his 17th RAGBRAI. He has completed the river-to-river trek five times. He covers breaking news, city government and RAGRAI for the Des Moines Register and can be reached at 515-443-3347, at pjoens@registermedia.com or on Twitter @Philip_Joens. 

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