By Wes Gilbertson

Crazy.
That’s one word that has been used to critique John and Ben Stephenson’s plans to celebrate the conclusion of another academic year by cycling across western Canada.
The twin brothers themselves prefer to describe the trip as challenging, fun, and rewarding. But they understand why some choose crazy instead.
After all, this isn’t your average summer vacation.
Shortly after completing their post-secondary education last month (Ben armed with an economics degree from Trent University and John a graduate of the University of Guelph’s human kinetics program), they pointed their bicycles west from Peterborough on May 1 and set out on the journey of a lifetime.
With a little luck, as well as the tireless support of John’s wife, Grace, and friend, Heather Yoshiki, the Peterborough natives are hoping to roll into Vancouver on June 8—about a 4,500-km trip.
And the best part? Every cent they collect along the way goes straight to the Northern Empowerment Association (NEA), a non-profit group aiding the poverty-stricken villagers of Ghana, a small country in west Africa.
The Stephensons and Yoshiki even are covering the cost of food, accommodations, and fuel for the support vehicle themselves, making the charity the big winner.
The twins are hoping to raise $10,000 along the road to Vancouver and estimate they’ve already raked in more than $4,000 in donations.
“We thought if we’re going to do something this big, let’s try to raise money for the Northern Empowerment Association,” explained John, who, along with Grace, participated in an exchange to Ghana last year where he volunteered with the NEA and taught at a primary school.
The Stephensons are cycling for about five hours—or about 110 km—each day. When they’re not putting pavement behind them, they’re making stops at high schools along the way to speak about their journey.
On Monday, their audience was a group of about 75 students at Fort High.
The pair said it’s important to remind high school students that they can make a difference on a larger scale. In 1975, the NEA was created by two Ghanaian teens who travelled from village to village on a bicycle they had been given by a Canadian missionary.
Three decades later, one of those students still oversees the operations of the non-profit group.
“We just wanted to go to schools and say ‘Look, this is what high school students did in Ghana. Look outside yourself,’” said John. “You have to remember that this organization was started because students in the 1970s decided to help.
“I wanted to do this because the kids will be, if they see us riding the bikes, more inclined to [support the venture] than if we just come and talk about it,” he reasoned.
The 24-year-olds wanted to “do something bigger” than just cycle, Ben added. “This just kind of raises an awareness,” he noted.
Ghana is one of the poorest countries in the world. According to the CIA World Fact Book, more than 360,000 Ghanaians—or about three percent of the adult population—are infected with AIDS while thousands of children have been orphaned by the deadly disease.
The country’s life expectancy rate is less than 57 years.
But Grace Stephenson, who spent two semesters in the west African country while completing her international studies degree, said once you meet the citizens of Ghana, it’s easy to forget the numbers are so bleak.
“The people totally change your mind about all those things,” she said. “They are really positive people. They’re very enthusiastic and they’re working really, really hard to change their situation.”
That’s where the NEA comes in. Not only does the group supply food and cleaning drinking water, it also is teaching the people of Ghana safer fishing techniques, introducing new crops, and often providing transportation to funerals—a major part of the Ghanaian culture.
The charity organization also operates medical clinics, schools, and fish hatcheries, and has provided the tools and supplies to build bathrooms in a number of villages.
“The NEA really works in different areas to help people do things for themselves,” said Grace. “It’s neat to see the really practical ways that [the aid efforts] are working.”
Ben, who has never been to Ghana, said raising money for the charity group has added meaning to his trek.
“It’s just been really, really neat,” he remarked, adding the support the brothers have received has been overwhelming.
“There are a ton of people that do a trip like this every year . . . [but] not a lot of organizations give everything to the charity,” he noted.
“I definitely understand more about what’s involved in a charity and how the people involved aren’t just doing it because of the ‘I’m a good person’ thing but because it’s actually close to their heart.”
With about one year of cycling experience under his belt, Ben has spent a little more time on the bike than his twin brother, but both are relatively new to the sport.
Although both played varsity football and are accomplished athletes, they admit the grind of this journey already is taking its toll. “We ice the knees every night,” John grinned.
But the Stephensons have found no shortage of inspiration to keep their legs driving forward as they move from town to town.
In addition to their drive to complete the physical challenge and the opportunity to raise money for those in the poverty-stricken villages of the west African country, letters from well-wishers and the beeping of car horns from enthusiastic passers-by keeps them plowing ahead.
Their religion (the boys’ father is an Anglican priest) and the charity work of cyclist Lance Armstrong, who the Stephensons follow closely, also has provided inspiration.
The brothers also have embraced the opportunity to get to see more of their country. Asked Monday how far west they’d been, they conceded Fort Frances was the closest they’ve ever gotten to Canada’s left coast.
Yesterday, it was Sioux Narrows. Today, they’re scheduled to arrive in Kenora. And they’re enjoying every bit of it.
“It’s totally been worth it,” John said, adding the pair are excited about the challenge the mountains are sure to present. “It’s the travelling road show.”
To follow the Stephensons’ progress across the country, log on to www.cyclenea.com
Donations can be mailed to Ghana Rural Integrated Development (Attn: Cycle NEA), Box 185, Bridgewater, N.S., B4V 2W8.

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