When Steve Czelusniak set off on his first Anchor House Ride for Runaways in 1993, he had no idea that he’d be participating in the event every year for the next quarter century.
To mark his 25th consecutive year on the ride this year, Czelusniak, a Ewing resident and teacher at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, has set a goal of raising $25,000 this year for the charity.
This year’s ride will begin July 8 and take Czelusniak and his fellow fundraisers from McHenry, Maryland, through the Pennsylvania towns of Somerset, Altoona, State College, Lewisburg, West Hazleton and Bethlehem before finishing at on July 15 at Quakerbridge Mall, the ride’s traditional endpoint.
Anchor House supports abused, homeless, runaway, at-risk and aging out youth, and provides them with food, clothing, a path toward a brighter future and outreach programs. It was founded in 1978 on the principle of an anchor offering safety and stability to a storm-tossed ship, while providing a link to solid ground. This is the 39th year for the ride, which is the organization’s primary fundraiser.
Czelusniak says he feels fortunate that he has been able to do his part to help the kids, earning dollars one mile at a time. After finishing this year’s race, he will have ridden a total of about 12,500 cumulative miles over the years.
He said he first found out about the 500-mile ride after reading an about it in an article. A novice biker at the time, he decided that it would not only be a good challenge, but there would also be a satisfying emotional payoff. Since then, the ride has become an annual tradition that has allowed the health and physical education teacher to show his support for at-risk youth.
Czelusniak says that he was suffering from a fever during his initial 50-mile training ride. That trip was a much more difficult than he had anticipated, and he questioned whether he would be able to handle the physical strain of biking 70 or 80 miles a day throughout the duration of his inaugural ride.
It didn’t take long, though, for him to realize that the mission eclipsed his tired muscles and aching legs.
“It was a pretty grueling week that first time out, and I had to ask myself if I wanted to do it again,” Czelusniak said. “But it’s like anything else: You go through it, you get over how sore your body is, and you realize that it is a pretty awesome experience. Once you hear stories from the children about all the good work that Anchor House does, how could you not ride a bike in some heat or over some hills if it helps make children’s lives better? If I can do this to help them, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Czelusniak says that the temporary saddle sores and battered body he suffers on the ride are nothing compared to the long-term horrors that are visited upon some of the ride’s young beneficiaries.
“The unofficial motto for the ride is ‘It’s for the Kids,’ so if you have a bad day, it’s too hot or it’s been raining, you tell yourself it’s for the kids,” Czelusniak says. “No matter how tough the day was, I’ll have a warm bed that night and a family waiting for me back home, whereas these kids we’re biking for have it a lot tougher. We just keep that in mind for inspiration.”
Camaraderie is an additional motivator for Czelusniak. There are typically about 180 other riders, and they bond over their shared goal and the empathy of knowing exactly how their fellow participants are feeling the effects of a full day pedaling through varying terrain. Participants are allowed a considerable amount of autonomy in an effort to allow everyone to ride at their own pace, though a focus on safely approaching the fundraising ride allows bikers to buddy up if they so desire.
During the past decade, Czelusniak has partnered with Father Mike Burns of St. Mary’s Parish in Bordentown, since the two go at roughly the same speed. They also share a similar approach to tackling the day’s route: hit the road by 6 a.m., opt for light snacks at the daily Support and Gear Stops instead of a sit-down lunch, and just power through the day’s journey.
That’s not to say that Czelusniak is so focused on the big-picture goal that he doesn’t appreciate the proverbial forest for its literal trees. While the very first Anchor House ride nearly four decades ago was a two-week affair that started out in Florida before winding its way back to Quakerbridge Mall, most of the rides that Czelusniak has gone on have been situated around the Mid-Atlantic region, New England and even Canada—all of which have provided some stunning views on the return route to Mercer County.
The annual bike route, which is prepared and meticulously plotted by the Ride Committee, changes every year, with traffic, construction, natural formations and rider feedback all influencing what the final path looks like. Czelusniak said he is fond of the scenery that New York offers, citing Niagara Falls, the upstate Finger Lakes region, Plattsburgh, Ithaca, and Corning as some of his favorite areas to ride through—though Vermont, Massachusetts, Natural Bridge, Virginia and Pine Creek Gorge, which is known as “The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania,” have all put Czelusniak face-to-face with lush, memorable vistas in their own rights, too.
But an auspicious route in the wake of 9/11 holds particular significance for Czelusniak, when a road through Pennsylvania’s Somerset County found him at the Shanksville crash site of Flight 93, well before the once-anonymous field became a poignant, permanent memorial to the 40 passengers and crew members who died that day.
“Just knowing what happened there takes your breath away—it was such a moving experience,” says Czelusniak. “All they had at the time was a fence that was decorated with all kinds of memorials and mementos, like the first responders’ T-shirts and notes. While we were there, a gentleman who lives nearby and witnessed the crash spoke to us about what he saw that day. You could see, even a year or two later, he was just so emotionally affected by what happened there. I remember looking around and realizing that I’d been there for half an hour, and that all the other bikers were already gone.”
The Ride Committee responsible for helping nearly 200 bikers make their way back to Central Jersey every year accounts for a fraction of the 30 or 40 support volunteers who Czelusniak credits for being huge factors in the ongoing success of a fundraiser that he says has always been organized and run exceptionally well.
While participants are afforded a great deal of autonomy, help is never far away. Whether it’s the SAG Stop team who makes sure each every-20-mile rest stop has plenty of drinks and snacks to refuel riders, rovers who are right there on the road to fix equipment and offer in-route support as needed, truck drivers who ferry participants’ bikes to the annual starting locale and their luggage between each hotel they’ll be hunkering down in that night, and a scout who checks the next day’s route for last-minute course corrections and potential issues, Anchor House ensures that a helping hand is never out of reach even for those helping fund its mission.
‘I don’t know if I can hit $25,000 or not, but I’m trying whatever I can.’
While the route isn’t the only thing that changes year to year—technology has influenced how bikers chart the day’s route on various gadgets and gizmos that keep them on track, though Czelusniak still prefers the old-fashioned approach of clipping his daily cue sheet to the handlebars of his “dream ride” bike, a Pinarello Rokh — that has remained consistent is the concerted effort of more than 200 people coming together to make sure Anchor House can fulfill its promises to its young charges.
Czelusniak is thankful that he can continue to support the charitable organization through physical endurance even in his 60’s. He is grateful to Elizabeth, his wife of 22 years, and his daughters, 18-year-old Olivia and 14-year-old Emily, for helping him support a cause that requires regular training and a week of biking that takes him away from home for a week every year.
The ride is also consistently a powerful community unifier. The Trenton Thunder allows Anchor House’s riders to use the park outside their stadium as a pre-ride meetup locale before riders are bused to their starting point, while RJ’s Bagels donates bagels and coffee. Pete Garnich from Knapp’s Cyclery in Lawrence Township comes along for the ride to offer his mechanic services to bikers on the road.
Czelusniak was delighted when he saw his own former students—Russell Buckley and Jessica Leathem, plus their fathers—participate in previous years. And at the end of each ride, the Dutko family in Pennington welcome scores of victorious riders to their home for a celebratory picnic feast and much-needed dip in their pool before the bikers take off two-by-two for their final victory lap at Quakerbridge Mall.
It is that strong spirit of community that inspired Czelusniak to set such an optimistic target for this milestone occasion.
“This year, for my 25th ride, I set a pretty lofty fundraising goal of $25,000,” he says. To get there, he’s asked family, friends, coworkers, and businesses that he frequents for donations, and he’s sent letters to various foundations and charitable trusts asking if they could help. “I don’t know if I can hit $25,000 or not, but I’m trying whatever I can,” he says.
Those interested in helping Czelusniak meet his goal to support Anchor House can visit anchorhouseride.rallybound.org/StevenCzelusniak to make a direct donation. Czelusniak adds that Anchor House is always looking for volunteers, assistance, and an array of donations to help the organization achieve its mission for the greater good.
“If you have handyman skills, you can help out with woodworking and plumbing, which obviously saves Anchor House a lot of money,” he says. “They’re always asking people to come in, take some time with the kids and take them bowling or out to the movies, things like that. There are so many opportunities to get involved beyond the ride.”