Biking to Fight Obesity

Jessica Lawrence ’97 finally traveled across the United States by bike this summer. She fulfilled the vow she made as a 15-year-old fresh off a European bicycle excursion, and she raised more than $25,000 to help combat childhood obesity.

The decision came last year when the longtime health educator, who began her career teaching seventh grade health straight out of Ithaca College, felt a break was in order.

“I guess I always thought I would do it in retirement, but [I decided] this is the year of being bold and courageous, and I’m just going to do it now,” Lawrence said.

Months of preparation and training followed, and during that time she decided to support a charitable organization as part of her journey.

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation is a nonprofit that works with schools, communities, and companies to help address the conditions that can lead to obesity among children. Lawrence had worked with the group before, and she was asked to consider the nonprofit as the charity she would represent.

“It aligns so well with the personal and professional goals I have,” Lawrence said of the alliance’s mission.

Lawrence began her trip in May, driving out to the Pacific Coast with a friend to dip the tire of her bicycle in the water before she pedaled for two days back to her home in Portland, Oregon. Work commitments postponed the rest of the trek a few weeks, but by early June she was on the road again.

Her route took her through Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, down through Colorado (she crossed the Continental Divide 10 times during this leg), across Kansas, through Missouri, and into Kentucky. From Kentucky, she headed to Virginia, and then up to Maryland and Pennsylvania, over to New Jersey, New York, and across the Long Island Sound to Connecticut. She was featured on Good Morning America when she reached Philadelphia in late August.

“Every state has something that is absolutely wonderful about it,” she recalled. “I was in Idaho, and I just remember the road and these golden rocks and the blue, blue sky with no clouds, and this beautiful river next to me. I remember going swimming every day — multiple times a day — stopping and saying, ‘It’s time to jump in again.”’ She met many folks along the way, some intentionally (she found lodging with several families through, a site connecting touring cyclists with hosts) and others by happenstance. Strangers would ride with her, offer to give her lodging, donate to her charity, or just provide her next meal. Many stopped her just to chat, and at times she felt the tug of the road calling for her return.

“Then I would take a deep breath, and I would remember that this trip is about these experiences," she said. "Then this person would be a part of my story, and for whatever reason they were a part of my trip. And it was really nice to slow down and just talk, and learn, and get to know people. That was the best part of the whole trip.”

During the journey Lawrence kept family and friends — old and new — abreast of her adventure with an often-candid blog, where she posted many photos of the scenery and the people she met. Ninety days after Lawrence set out from Portland, she dipped her wheel in the Atlantic at Charlestown Beach in Rhode Island, at her parents’ beach house where she spent her summers growing up. She was joined by a small group of friends and family who met her for the final leg.

For Lawrence, the journey was one of empowerment, affirming that she can do whatever she sets out to accomplish. “It's because it was such a big commitment as far as time, physical demands, and the mental and emotional challenge,” she said. “I’m proud of myself. I’m really proud of myself. And I think a lot of people don't say that to themselves.”

From a professional standpoint, the fundraising helped provide another view of her travels. “I have ridden across the country looking through the lens of childhood obesity,” Lawrence said. “I see the lack of sidewalks. I see playgrounds falling apart. I see a lack of fruits and vegetables in small towns.”

“I do this for work, so I might have seen it anyway, but what the Alliance for a Healthier Generation has done is keep those thoughts at the forefront of my mind, so I could really observe what was missing and ask, ‘Why aren’t we creating environments in this country that make it easy to walk and bike, and communities that make nutrient-rich foods accessible?’”

You can read more about Jessica Lawrence's cross-country trip on her website