Christian Butler will go to almost any length to help send underprivileged kids to summer camp.
Even across the United States coast to coast.
On a bicycle.
The Quad-Cities resident is pedaling from San Diego to St. Augustine, Florida. Through his initiative, which he’s calling Cycling Kids to Camp, he hopes to raise $25,000 in donations that would allow 100 disadvantaged youths to spend a week at Camp Shalom near Maquoketa.
When I talked with Christian last week on Day 31 of the trip, he was in Texas hill country, on schedule, about halfway to his destination. Fundraising-wise, he’s even closer.
Butler sees the journey as a way to indulge two passions at once: doing something special to help kids and bicycling.
“I’ve always wanted to do something for kids that would impact them in a big way,” he said. “Being a cyclist, it’s been on my bucket list to ride across America; that’s a huge deal that I’ve wanted to do. I thought if I got the opportunity to make good on that, I could kill two birds with one stone, have businesses sponsor me and use the donations to help send underprivileged children to summer camp.
“Summer camps and working with kids are close to my heart and I always wanted to do something for the kids like that.”
Butler, who will turn 51 next week, is an insurance broker specializing in Medicare plans for a Quad Cities insurance agency. He came to the United States in 1995 from England to work as a counselor at a summer camp near the Quad Cities. He learned about Camp Shalom from Gary Metivier, former Quad Cities television news anchor whose two sons had attended the camp. Butler became interested because of its focus on Christian values.
The camp, located off the Caves Road about two miles northwest of Maquoketa, was developed by St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport. While the 311-acre camp primarily served that congregation in its early years, it has since broadened its mission and today serves all denominations as an ecumenical ministry.
After visiting the camp and meeting Tom Bley, now in his eighth year as camp executive director, Butler found “this was definitely a camp I would like kids to go to.
“He (Bley) listened to my story and he welcomed me with open arms. I could tell right away it was a wonderful connection. I did a lot of research about the camp, enough to tell me that this was definitely a camp I would like kids to go to. So I decided to use the donations to send kids to Camp Shalom.
“I just feel that it is very important to help kids regardless of their financial means,” Butler said. “It’s an opportunity for them to have that experience. Summer camp builds self-esteem and gives them great experiences.”
Butler initially planned to do the 3,200-mile ride across eight states in the southern tier of the U.S. in March and April of 2020. He left San Diego on March 4 and got as far as Tucson, Arizona, when “everything — restaurants, motels, campgrounds — started shutting down and there was a lot of fear” as the COVID-19 pandemic spread. He also was suffering from painful tendinitis in both knees, so he returned home and decided to try again this year.
Treating the knee pain with cortisone injections, he left San Diego on March 1, climbed over the coastal range and across the southern Arizona and New Mexico desert. He was in great spirits when we talked last week as he was taking a rest day from pedaling through central Texas about 100 miles west of Austin. He was looking forward to taking a couple of rest days with family in Austin over Easter weekend before taking off again.
The ride has included some exhausting climbs. He’s crossed the Continental Divide and noted an especially tough climb through Emory Pass in the Black Range in southwest New Mexico.
“By the time you get to the top, you’re at 8,200-8,300 feet. The climb started at about 3,000 feet, so it’s about 5,200-5,300 feet of climbing on the bike.”
With no support vehicle, he carries all his gear — phone charger, clothes, sleeping bag, tent — with him on the bike, which he estimated weighs 90 to 95 pounds fully loaded. He carries three water bottles of about 24-ounce capacity each and can fill a 2-liter water bladder for those long, desolate stretches, such as he’s seeing across Texas ranch country.
“That’s a lot of weight, especially when you’re going up a 12% grade.” He noted there have been times he has alternated riding and walking the bike up especially steep inclines.
Headwinds are another challenge.
“Today we had a 20-mile-an-hour headwind all day,” he said. “I think most cyclists would rather go up mountains with no headwind rather than ride on a flat surface with a headwind all day. It just takes it out of you, it beats you up so much, it’s so tiring. I did 63 miles the other day and had nothing but a 20-mph headwind. It was just brutal, absolutely brutal.”
But there also have been days with a nice tail wind. On one such day, after completing a planned 60 miles with plenty of daylight left and a 20-mph headwind forecast for the next day, he continued another 40 miles before stopping.
He has an itinerary but pays close attention to weather forecasts, particularly wind speed and direction, and adjusts his day’s riding plans accordingly. His overnights are a mix of sleeping in his tent at a campground to keep expenses down and getting a motel room for the comforts of a soft bed and hot shower.
Butler said he considered himself to be on schedule to arrive in St. Augustine by the first few days of May as planned.
The journey will be the longest bicycle trip he’s taken. He didn’t mention that he and his wife Michelle, also a cycling and outdoors enthusiast, rode RAGBRAI (the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) two years ago until I asked, and then he downplayed it, saying, “That was only a week.” Although support vehicles transport the gear of the great majority of RAGBRAI riders, Butler said he and his wife “were self-contained,” noting “that was a good warm-up” to this jaunt.
“It’s been quite a journey so far,” he noted. “I’ve met a lot of neat folks along the way. Most people are really good. Most people want to talk to you, they want to understand what you’re doing, they want to help.
“I heard a lot before I left — people would say, ‘Well, you’ve got to be careful, you know,’ and this and that. But most people are good — anyway, I’ve found that to be the case when I’ve traveled. There are some bad ones out there, but there are bad apples everywhere. Most people genuinely want to help.”
A check of the fund-raising thermometer on the Camp Shalom website on Friday showed him closing in on his $25,000 target with $21,842 raised so far. Because he is paying the costs of the trip from his own funds, every dollar donated will go toward camp scholarships.
The Quad-City Morning Optimist Club, of which Butler is a member, matched donations up to $9,000. The Maquoketa Optimist Club and the Maquoketa Rotary Club, of which Bley is a member, also have donated to the cause.
Under an arrangement he and Bley worked out for the kids they will help, the camp will reduce its regular fee by about half to $250 and that will be covered by a $250 donation from the Cycling Kids to Camp fund.
Bley called Butler “a guy who’s making a difference all by himself.
“We don’t have to do big things like riding across the country; we can do a lot of little things, too. But it’s neat to see somebody do something big like that. It can change the trajectory of someone else’s life.”
Bley noted that “we’ve never turned down a child for financial considerations or any reason. Every child is welcome and needs to come to camp. That’s why we’re there.”
Bley and Butler urged that anyone who knows of a child who would like to attend summer camp at Camp Shalom and for whom funding may be an issue to contact Bley at (563) 323-2790.
While some other summer youth activities in eastern Iowa, such as Camp Albrecht Acres at Sherrill and Loras College’s All-Sports Camp in Dubuque, have announced they are suspending operations for this summer due to continuing COVID-19 concerns, Bley said Camp Shalom will be in operation, although at about 60% capacity to allow more social distancing.