Rutgers students who rode bikes from New Brunswick to Orlando, Florida


Sunny Wang

In 2013, five Rutgers University–New Brunswick students made a 1,600-mile cycling trek down the East Coast, starting in New Brunswick and ending in Orlando, Florida, 28 days later. Along the way, they stopped in cities to volunteer with local organizations whose goals aligned with the cause that the riders were riding to support: the Embrace Kids Foundation.

The Dream Project was founded four years later by one of those original riders, Gabrielle Rossi SAS’14 (who also has a master of science degree from Columbia University in nonprofit management). The Dream Project brings together New Jersey-based charitable organizations doing great work and young people between the ages of 18 and 25 who want to contribute to the communities around them through adventure-based fundraising trips to support their missions.

Five “Dreamers” came aboard for this year’s trip, a 2,000-mile bike ride from New Brunswick to Miami Beach, Florida: Hope McCraw SAS’18, Sakib Jalal SAS’18, Alexander Lopez-Perez SAS’18, sophomore Max Wang, and junior Neeharika Thuravil. “The young adults who gravitate towards this kind of challenge are compassionate, generous, and giving. The Dream Project provides the tools and resources to channel those qualities into a really unique experience,” Rossi said.

This year, the team partnered with Visions and Pathways, a New Jersey-based organization that serves abused and neglected youth by providing food, housing, counseling, education assistance, arts and recreation activities, career and employment counseling, scholarships, and financial literacy instruction.

After months of planning, they rolled out of Buccleuch Park in New Brunswick in May bound for Florida. During the month spent on the road, the Dreamers faced challenges—those expected (flat tires, sore limbs) and those that were not (emotional tolls, relentless streaks of bad weather). Kent Bikes International Inc., provided the bicycles and gear for the trip. Thirty families, churches, and organizations supported the riders along the way. The Dream cyclists took breaks from the rigors of the road to stop, recharge, and volunteer with local charities that serve at-risk youth. Along the way, riders helped in a number of ways, such as painting shelters, sorting donations, and spending time with kids supported by similar programs as the students heightened awareness, made connections, and raised money.

“I wanted to create an organization that would be accessible for the cyclists who participated and relevant to the towns that they rode through,” Rossi said. They arrived in South Beach, Florida, on June 18, offering service days along the way in Philadelphia; Washington; Richmond, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; Jacksonville, Florida; and finally, Miami, Florida. They arrived in South Beach in Miami on June 19, having achieved all their goals during a grueling excursion that tested their endurance and determination. The journey had become an odyssey of self-discovery for the five students, illuminating possibilities for a lifetime of community service and charitable work.

The team remained steadfast as they encountered steep hills, bad weather, flat tires, unexpected detours, wrong turns, and minor injuries. “They rose to the occasion, and I’m so proud of them,” Rossi said. “This was a huge learning experience. The riders honed their leadership skills as they came together as a team to navigate physical challenges, overcome emotional obstacles, and, most importantly, spread awareness for their cause. They learned how to engage with people from different backgrounds in other parts of the country. What they accomplished is a testament to their drive and character.” Although the Dream Team members are all athletic, none of them was an experienced long-distance cyclist.

“They grew into this challenge,” Rossi continued. “They took ownership of this experience. It was amazing to see the glow on their faces when they completed their first 100-mile day of riding. That was the moment they realized what they were capable of doing.”

The success of this year’s Dream Project has generated momentum for another fundraising bike tour in 2019. Rossi’s goal is to build a sustainable organization that will support trips that expand the Dream Project’s capacity to serve the communities of New Jersey. She’ll be looking to recruit a new team—students who demonstrate a passion for fundraising and helping others. “This project constantly pushes me to think bigger, better, and bolder. I’m always asking: ‘What can we do to play our part in making the world a brighter place?’”

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