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- More from Eileen O. Daday
A middle schoolteacher from Mount Prospect, looking for ways to get in shape after quitting smoking, now finds himself in rare company.
During last month's 18th annual Habitat 500, which raises money for safe and affordable housing and takes riders across Minnesota, Tony DiBenedetto was one of only five riders to celebrate 10 years and riding 5,000 miles for the cause.
Over those years, he has raised more than $17,000 to provide homes for low-income families through Habitat for Humanity, including those in the Gulf Coast region after Hurricane Katrina and even locally in Maywood and Wauconda.
He concedes now that he had no idea how much it would impact his life when he first saw an ad for the ride in the back of a Chicago sports magazine.
"I thought Habitat for Humanity was interesting, but mostly I was looking to ride my bike," said DiBenedetto, who begins his 18th year this month with North Shore Elementary District 112, teaching art at Edgewood Middle School in Highland Park.
"Now, I'm much more interested in Habitat for Humanity than biking," he said. "I still look forward to the ride every year, but what I really look forward to is seeing the other people helping others and meeting Habitat families."
He describes the warm feeling he got on his first ride when other veteran riders pitched in to help him complete the difficult ride. He also marveled at the number of volunteers who provided them with meals and moral support at each rest stop.
"Believe it or not, it is actually possible to gain weight on the ride, that's how lavish their spreads were," DiBenedetto said.
As it was, there were 137 registered riders - their most ever - and 40 volunteers, most who had given up a week's vacation to be a part of the support staff.
Of the riders, 85 were returning participants. They came from 15 states and ranged in age from as young as 15 to as old as 76. Their median age was 48, and 60 percent of them were male.
"There's just this family feeling, especially with so many repeat riders," DiBenedetto said. "Even many of the bike mechanics were returning, as well as the support and gear people, who sagged behind us with ham radios.
"There's just this synergy that expands," he added, "with all this helpfulness and goodwill."
Emily Muyskens of Habitat for Humanity of Minnesota says 96 percent of every dollar raised goes directly into materials to build more homes. She adds that over the past 17 years, riders have raised more than $3.5 million for Habitat home construction.
"This year's goal was to raise $300,000, and $275,000 already has been raised," Muyskens said. "We're anticipating we'll hit our goal."
They rode an average of 75 miles per day over the seven-day trek. Their ride took them through Minnesota's rural Arrowhead section, past its many lakes, Superior National Forest and rugged Sawtooth Mountains.
One of the most satisfying events, however, took place on the fifth day, when riders helped erect a Habitat house built along the route in Hibbing, Minnesota.
"It was really something to see," he said. "We rode into town on a Wednesday when all there was was a concrete slab. By the time we left on Friday, it had turned into a framed house, with the shell of the four walls and roof joints installed."
DiBenedetto and the other riders can direct where their pledges go, and 45 percent of the money he raises this year will help to fund this "Bike Home," he said.
"It was for a single mother and her three kids," he added. "We also gave them bikes, so that they always have an affinity for the riders who helped to build it."
DiBenedetto still is collecting funds for his ride. To learn more, visit habitat500.org. Click on "riders" and follow the instructions to donate. DiBenedetto was rider No. 133.