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NEW HAVEN – The tenth Brake the Cycle of Poverty ride across Connecticut concluded on June 27, when 11 bicyclists and six support team members in three vans rolled up to Archdiocese of Hartford’s Office for Catholic Social Justice Ministry. Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Peter Rosazza and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano greeted the group and expressed gratitude for their annual commitment to raising awareness of poverty in Connecticut and throughout the nation.
Bishop Rosazza thanked the team for their long-term efforts "to defend the rights of the poor and needy" and acknowledged the group as "a wonderful ministry in the archdiocese."
The grueling 191-mile bicycle tour, executed despite sweltering temperatures, oppressive humidity and sometimes pouring rain, was much more than a bike ride. The carefully planned six-day trek took riders to soup kitchens, homeless shelters, legislative offices and Catholic parishes in the archdiocese and Diocese of Norwich.
Lou Terzo, a member of St. Bridget Parish in Manchester and a founding member of the Brake the Cycle of Poverty group in Connecticut, began the trip with a prayer at St. Bridget. The riders and support people prayed for strength, safety and success. They reflected upon the road ahead and upon their threefold mission to educate, encourage and advocate.
"Our group is small but our mission is great," said Mr. Terzo.
Although the itinerary was set and the mission well-established, none of the riders knew what the week would bring. They expected the weather to be unpredictable and hills to test riders’ stamina. They didn’t know how many times the group would stop to repair or inflate flat tires or fix bicycle chains.
More pressing on their minds on the first day of their journey were uncertainties about the effectiveness of their efforts.
Would legislative representatives listen politely to their message and then forget it when policies affecting Connecticut’s most vulnerable citizens were voted upon? Would presentations scheduled throughout the week be well-attended? Would they be effective enough to inspire others to join in their mission?
"How can we measure the efficacy of what we are doing?" asked Bob King, a veteran rider and member of St. Bridget Parish.
Throughout the week, answers to some of these questions unfolded.
Every evening, the group cycled to Catholic parishes and gave presentations that shared information, statistics and perspectives on poverty. They encouraged parishioners to write letters to lawmakers, asking them to protect funding of programs that assist the poor and focus on policy changes that impact the structural causes of poverty.
Brake the Cycle members delivered a total of 50 letters, written by parishioners immediately after these presentations, to state and federal office-holders. During the trip, the team members also visited U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal and representatives of Senator Chris Murphy, U.S. Rep. John Larson and Gov. Dannel Malloy.
The Brake the Cycle of Poverty group also met people struggling with poverty. In homeless shelters, soup kitchens and food pantries, they listened to and learned from both service providers and those they serve.
What they learned was sometimes surprising, touching and hopeful. Pam Carmel, who has been riding with the group for nine years, learned from a homeless man that insect repellent is an especially appreciated luxury. The homeless in Hartford, who in summer often sleep along the shores of the Connecticut River, are plagued by mosquitoes and other insects, he told her.
The group learned from Emily Kaas, who works with the Manna Community Meals program as Hands on Hartford volunteer coordinator, that more than 2,500 Hands on Hartford volunteers and others are also working to improve conditions for families, the elderly and working poor in the city.
When the cycling group stopped at Manna Community Meals in Hartford, adult clients shared accounts of bureaucratic hurdles and issues they have experienced when seeking education, employment, transportation or housing while the 8-year-old child of one client delighted in eating fruit cocktail from a Styrofoam cup.
Brake the Cycle team members share the stories and what they learn in their travels with parishioners and legislative representatives with the hope of giving a voice to the poor, bringing statistics to life and putting a face on poverty in Connecticut.
U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that nearly 50 million people, or about 16 percent of the population of the United States, live in poverty. In Connecticut, more than 350,000, or about 10 percent, live in poverty.
"Fifty million people sounds like a lot, but depending how you look at it, there are between 100-150 million people that don’t have enough money to live decently," said John Ryan, pastoral associate at St. Bridget, who also is an original member of the Brake the Cycle of Poverty team.
The poverty thresholds used by the census bureau vary based on family size and the number of children. In 2011, the threshold for a family of four was $23,021.
"People do not know about the federal poverty level being ridiculously low," he said. "They do not know how bad poverty really is."
"The most frequent response we get is, ‘I didn’t know that,’" said Mr. Ryan.
Supporters buoyed the cyclists as they traveled. During their trip, the number of followers on the group’s Facebook page increased by 50 percent. Countless people expressed overwhelming appreciation for their efforts and several groups wrote notes to thank the team. One man waiting at a bus stop in Hartford, who briefly engaged in conversation with riders, conveyed his gratitude by simply saying, "Thank you for doing this for me."
The team, which includes a high school educator, data processing manager, special education teacher, stay-at-home mom, priest, deacon and several retired insurance professionals, already is planning the 2014 ride.