Tales from the AC: Our Generous Hosts

Discovery & Inspiration

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Completing the American Challenge — biking for six weeks and 3,000 miles across the United States — is a heroic accomplishment. It takes endurance, fortitude, and a whole lot of gumption.

What it doesn’t take is a whole lot of outdoor camping. Unlike other Overland trips, the American Challenge spends only one third of nights camping outside. Instead, families across the country open their homes, pools, or churches to a group of kids they’ve never met. After a long day of biking, a little air conditioning and a homemade meal can make even 100 miles seem worth it. And it’s this generosity of strangers that makes the American Challenge possible in the first place.

Sherry and Marion Whinrey have been hosting Overland groups for the past 20 years. That first summer, Sherry saw an unfamiliar group of kids biking to the park across from their house in Union, Mississippi. The Whinreys went out to investigate and learned, much to their surprise, that the kids would be sleeping there — in the park! Due to a miscommunication with the Chamber of Commerce, dinner wasn’t organized for these students as expected. Enter Sherry, who churned out a feast of sweet tea, popcorn, and PB&J’s. Twenty years later, she’s got hosting down to an art.

Melinda McLarnon got her first call from the Overland office 10 years ago. That first group took over her big house in Jackson, Georgia, spreading sleeping bags upstairs and downstairs. She cooked dinner and did everyone’s laundry. She says, “I absolutely fell in love with the kids.”

These families make hosting into a celebration and treat the bikers on their teen summer adventures like local celebrities. In Union, they’re escorted by the fire truck. Everyone turns out to watch “the bicycle kids.” The sheriff of Jackson greets the kids at the town line as they enter and exit, and then they’re treated to a free meal at Melinda’s restaurant.

The kindness and generosity these families extend to kids who are not their own is genuinely moving. Year after year, they organize laundry and trips to the pool. They sponsor free dinners and set off fireworks. They pull out old newspapers featuring articles with Overland kids or photo albums of past visits, where students can recognize their sibling or a friend from school.

When asked what inspires this generosity, Sherry talked about how it’s an opportunity for her town to rise to the occasion. And she loves to see students come back as leaders in later years. Melinda agreed: she has kids of her own, but she feels like these students are her kids, too.

If completing the American Challenge teaches you anything, it’s the importance of having an open heart. There are people across the country who upend their lives and empty their cupboards for a group of dusty bikers. It takes courage of all types to complete this journey, and the courage to be open and kind to others is just as integral to the American Challenge as that first glimpse of the Santa Monica Pier.

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