When the odometer on Gentry Hughes’ bike passed 1,000 miles outside Des Moines’ Water Works park on June 30, he raised his fists in celebration.

Gentry, 13, is a member of the Dream Team, a nonprofit cycling club for underprivileged youth in central Iowa. The program teaches kids life lessons by helping them achieve their cycling goals – like racking up the minimum 1,000 bike miles starting in March that allows them to participate in RAGBRAI.

As the Dream Team celebrates its 25th anniversary on Tuesday at the Register’s annual Big Bike Ride in Iowa, it continues the mission set by its founder, the late RAGBRAI Director Jim Green, in 1997.

Each year, Dream Team members who qualify to participate in RAGBRAI receive a free bike if they travel more than 450 miles. But the real rewards come as they achieve their personal goals.

For Gentry, on that 38-mile run last month, he hit the 1,000-mile mark with most of the summer to go.

“Well done, gentleman! shouted a mentor as the teenager shared his news.

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Gentry, whose parents adopted him and his two siblings in foster care in 2020, rides like a lightning bolt. As the Dream Team began training in March, he said he wanted to ride with the group because it had been difficult for him to make friends or spend time with them during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Four months later, he hiked the Water Works Park practice course in Cumming and through Walnut Woods State Park, enjoying the camaraderie of a group he spent so much time with.

“I made a few friends,” he said.

“He’s got a lot of energy,” said one, Marissa Trees, 18, adding that Gentry is “usually pretty positive all the time.”

The late RAGBRAI director Jim Green founded the Dream Team in 1997.

“RAGBRAI is only the reward”

The Dream Team is open to Des Moines-area youth ages 13-18 who are facing challenges and could benefit from its focus on mentorship, fitness, and personal success. It is a non-profit organization, funded by donations from cyclists and partners like RAGBRAI, Bike World and the YMCA.

Dream Team members begin training in March at the Wellmark YMCA. Once the weather warms up, they go on a bike ride every Monday, Thursday and Saturday until RAGBRAI starts.

They must regularly attend the ride and accumulate at least 1,000 miles to go on RAGBRAI.

“For the Dream Team, RAGBRAI is not just a bike ride; it’s a series of life experiences and goal setting,” said Frank Owens, who led the Dream Team in 1998.

That’s still true today, said Jeff Vangendren, who will be executive director of the Dream Team next year.

The Dream Team in 1998, its second year.  From the start, the program was designed to help at-risk youth, including homeless children.

“RAGBRAI is just the reward,” Vangendren said. “We become friends with them and provide them with a safe place to be themselves and close the world and ride their bikes.”

Green’s widow, Judy, said he was on a bike ride in another state when he saw a “Dream Team” made up of people who excelled academically. She told her husband about it.

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“He liked the concept, but he wanted it to go the other way around,” she said. “He wanted it to be for those who would never have the chance to do this.”

The Dream Team is a big part of the legacy of her husband, who died three years ago, she said. In the early years, team members traveled to their home at Sun Valley Lake, southwest of Osceola, to camp and swim.

“It’s a great program that we believe has always reached the kids who needed to be touched,” said Judy Green.

“The transformation is remarkable”

Dream Team members must be referred to the team by counselors, the legal system or other means, Vangendren said. Some come from foster care, and the Dream Team helps give them “a family feeling,” he said. Others have troubled home lives and need a place to build a support network.

These are often children who have had difficulty relating to others. Trees, who is entering her senior year at Woodward-Granger High School, found herself in this situation when she was referred to the Dream Team by her therapist when she was 12 years old. She struggled with her confidence and could be shy.

“I liked it because at the time she didn’t have a lot of friends,” her dad, Kevin Trees, said. “It just makes them interact socially.”

During six years of riding with the Dream Team, she became a leader, said general manager Brian O’Leary.

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“It was hard to even get her to call when we were riding the bikes and you were training ‘on your left’. You couldn’t hear Marissa,” O’Leary said, referring to the warnings given by bikers when they pass pedestrians or other cyclists. “Today, someone gets hurt, she stops and asks if you are ok and tells him about it. The transformation is remarkable.”

These days, Trees rides ahead of the pack. A lime green bow on the back of her helmet from her first RAGBRAI makes her stand out 100 yards away.

“Let’s go right here,” she said as she pointed her teammates to a lead.

Although she can still struggle with shyness, “at school I’m able to stand up for myself better when I need things or don’t understand something,” she said. “It’s easier for me to talk to people.”

Her younger brother Sid, 16, also has social difficulties. During his first year on Dream Team this summer, he found a welcoming support network.

This year, Sid did something his parents wouldn’t have imagined: he asked some friends to come over for a birthday party, his father said. It was a simple thing that most people take for granted, but it almost brought his parents to tears.

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“The Dream Team is really helping him out,” Kevin Trees said. “For him, it’s not a matter of fitness. It’s strictly about learning how to interact with people.”

Vangendren cited Rachaelle Mendoza, 15, a sophomore at Joshua Christian Academy, as another example of how the program helps young people. Rachaelle couldn’t balance on a bike in early spring.

“I get on a bike and fall one way or the other,” she said in March.

Eventually, she figured out how to ride by embracing her tendency to crash and preparing for it, Vangendren said.

Jeff Vangendren will be the executive director of the Dream Team next year.  He said the organization's mission remains unchanged from its founding goal in 1997: to change children's lives through cycling.

“A practice run, she showed up with knee pads,” Vangendren said. “She rode with knee pads for a few weeks, and now she’s one of our top riders.”

The Dream Team is asking lots of participants like Rachaelle, O’Leary said — to challenge them to go from learning to drive to cycling across the state for seven days.

And the expectations continue during the journey. Dream Team members can’t “sag” on even the longest, toughest days of the ride if they want to keep their bikes. So each member will have to pedal Wednesday’s Century Day 104 miles from Emmetsburg to Mason City.

“It’s such a big challenge to take on,” O’Leary acknowledged.

But, he added, life too.

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“The recipe for success here is no different than the recipe you need to be successful when you go to college or when you get a job or career and you need to set goals and work diligently to achieve those goals. goals,” he said.

During practice on June 30, Rachaelle felt nauseous. She was much calmer than usual, Vangendren said. Even so, she pushed what team members dubbed “Soccer Mom Hill” near Walnut Woods State Park. Long done with the knee pads, she held on, going every mile.

His experience embodied the Dream Team mission. When times get tough it can be easy to quit, but with persistence you can reach the ice cream stand around the corner – or the tire plunge of the Mississippi River, with a bicycle that is now the yours and the confidence that you can handle a challenge that comes months before you might have had a hard time imagining.

Philip Joens is on his 17th RAGBRAI. He made the trek from one river to another five times. He covers breaking news, city government and RAGRAI for the Des Moines Register and can be reached at 515-443-3347, [email protected] or on Twitter @Philip_Joens.