When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita demolished America’s Gulf Coast in 2005, Raymond Boutin ’08 and Aaron Tester were college students in New England. Upon graduation three years later, much of the region was still recovering, and the pair launched a plan to assist. Boutin and Tester founded the Discover America Project and got involved the only way they knew how – by jumping, err, biking right in.
Their plan centered on a project called Ride to Rebuild New Orleans, a 5,000-mile bicycle journey from Boston to New Orleans then to Redwood National Park in California. “We started out wanting to bike across America,” Boutin says, “and we realized that we could raise money for a cause. The families on the Gulf Coast were still struggling, and we decided that we wanted to help Katrina victims.”
The pair partnered with the nonprofit Rebuilding Together New Orleans. The plan was to ride to New Orleans, volunteer in the rebuilding efforts and then continue the trek to California. Nothing, of course, ever goes according to plan. After just four days on the road, Tester was unable to walk, much less ride – a severe knee injury sidelined him indefinitely, but Boutin decided to push on solo and made it to New Orleans in November.
Boutin fell in love with the city, so much so that he tracked down a temporary job with an architecture firm and spent his spare time volunteering in the community. Ever the architect, Boutin worked with an organization called KaBOOM, which, through its Operation Playground initiative, is building 100 playgrounds in hurricane-damaged areas.
Emily Bome ’09, Boutin’s girlfriend and fellow RWU alum, joined him next, and the two set out for California. Riding through the deserts of western Texas, the couple was joined by a stray dog. After a harrowing journey that involved a state trooper, a kind Mexican couple with a camp, a hitch-hiked ride in a truck, an animal shelter and a Walmart in Carlsbad, N.M., Boutin and Bome had themselves a new pup, aptly named Texas. They taught Texas to ride in a laundry basket rigged to the back of Boutin’s bike, and he stayed for the rest of the 300-mile trip to Albuquerque, where the ever-growing group called it quits for the winter.
On temporary hiatus in New Orleans once again, Boutin plans to finish the ride in coming months. Even with the challenges, the pair has raised nearly $10,000 and hopes to ride together again some day. If nothing else, the trip has been an exercise in perseverance.
“First I’d like to finish this ride,” Boutin says. “Then, who knows? The rest of the world is waiting.”