TEBBETTS — Eighteen bicyclists ranging in age from 23 to 70 — two on a tandem — braved heat, rain and sore muscles to put smiles on the faces of children in underdeveloped countries.
Riders and six support staff from First Baptist Church, Lee’s Summit, traveled 225 miles May 31-June 3 on Missouri’s Katy Trail from Clinton to St. Charles as a mission project. They raised money for Smile Train, a not-for-profit organization that funds cleft lip and cleft palate surgery for children throughout the world.
The team spent the second night in Tebbetts, a tiny community east of the Missouri River near Jefferson City, where they stayed in the Turner Katy Trail Shelter. The hostel once was the town’s Baptist church. Team leader Randy Buffington’s father had led music for the congregation in Buffington’s hometown.
Speech pathologist Julie Thomas organized the unique mission trip. Also a Tebbetts native, Thomas had always had a desire to ride the Katy Trail, she explained. Her career kept the plight of children with cleft lips and palates in her mind and heart.
“I have always wanted to give to Smile Train,” she said. “Kids don’t always get the treatment they need…. And in some cultures, it’s seen as a sign from Satan.”
She enlisted Buffington, First Baptist’s longtime worship minister, to lead the trip because of his marathon running and mission experience. They started enlisting participants, limiting riders to college students and older.
Mel and Nancy Skinner, SBC International Mission Board missionaries to Russia, signed up. Skinner often biked while in the military, and the couple biked a lot around Europe during the two and a half years Skinner served as a pastor with the European Baptist Convention.
Furloughing in First Baptist’s missionary house, they had ridden part of the trail “a long time ago,” Nancy Skinner said. But they had never traveled the entire trail, nor had they biked with a group. “But that was awesome.”
Marathoner Mike Eaton, 61, jumped at the chance to participate. His enthusiasm led his wife, Nancy, to take up a friend’s challenge to stretch her abilities.
“I had just lost 30 pounds and decided to try,” Nancy Eaton explained. “And Smile Train…is a nice motivation.” Even after covering about 130 miles, she added, “I think we’ll keep it [cycling] up.”
For his first ever mission trip, Travis Lough joined the support team because he had grown up with a friend who had a cleft lip. “It motivated me to do research…and I was encouraged to raise money for it,” he said. “I couldn’t ride but I wanted to participate.”
Lough drove the medic van to provide water and snacks at each trailhead and to carry lunches packed for each day.
To prepare for the trip, riders held to a training regimen that began in January. Buffington and Thomas scheduled group rides and set individual mileage totals to reach each week to build endurance.
The group set a $5,000 goal for Smile Train, with each participant seeking donations and pledges to cover one surgery — $250. “I didn’t think we could reach it,” Buffington confessed to the team during devotion time at the Tebbetts stop. “But now we are at almost $5,500.”
While they had focused on raising funds for a specific ministry, they were surprised at the “God moments” they encountered on the ride itself.
About eight miles into the second day’s ride (after spending the night at First Baptist Church, Boonville), the Skinners’ tandem bike broke down. Although trained in bike repair, rider Mark Thierry couldn’t fix the tandem because too many pieces had fallen out.
“We were out in the middle of nowhere,” Buffington said. But one of the support team spotted a ranger nearby and asked for help. The ranger took the Skinners to a bike shop in Rocheport. Because he didn’t have everything needed to repair the bike, the shop owner took them to a Columbia bike shop, just a quarter-mile from a Katy Trail spur.
The couple lost only a little time and was able to catch the rest of the pack before it reached Tebbetts.
Before the evening ended in Tebbetts, the group ministered to two bikers. As they reached the hostel, they met a young man who had nowhere to sleep and who planned to bed down in the open that night. The First Baptist group invited him to share their evening meal and space in the shelter. He also agreed to accompany them to their third stop in Marthasville where he worshipped with them.
As they relaxed after supper, a young woman rode in, and they invited her to share the shelter, too. “I was amazed that we have had opportunities to talk to people on the trail as well,” Buffington said.
The First Baptist team incorporated a little tradition into their Katy Trail mission trip by fixing and serving the Wednesday evening meal at Charrette Baptist Church in Marthasville. They also performed as a choir for worship.
They completed the ride at the St. Charles trailhead, with nearly everyone cycling every mile. “It just ended beautifully,” Buffington said. “We reached our goal. We drew closer together, and we ministered along the way.”