By Jessica Sly, Communications Specialist
As splashes of an orange and pink sunrise paint the sky over Wadena, high energy buzzes at the fairgrounds. Horses paw the ground in excitement, tails swishing and heads bobbing. Nearly 50 riders pack up camp and saddle up their mounts. Laughter and singing float into the air as the troupe trots off on its next adventure.
Trails4Transplants. It’s a group – or rather, a family – that has spent the last six years riding hundreds of miles on horseback raising awareness for organ, eye and tissue donation. And now they’re in the home stretch.
Back in 2012, friends and avid horsemen Roger Hille and Ashley Peterson were contemplating organizing a long-distance horse ride, but it wasn’t until Roger suggested riding 300-plus miles from Warren, Minnesota, to his ranch near St. Anthony, North Dakota, that they got the ball rolling. But in order to ride that far, they determined they needed a cause.
A recent LifeSource volunteer, Ashley suggested riding for organ, eye and tissue donation awareness. Not only that but both of their lives had been touched by this. Roger’s son-in-law received a liver transplant, and Ashley’s brother was an organ donor who saved four lives.
“I always tell people that it really was a glimpse of hope for us in a traumatic time,” Ashley said. “Because of donation, we had the opportunity to continue his legacy.”
That November, Trails4Transplants was officially formed.
As they planned their 14-day ride, Roger and Ashley attracted the support of countless other horsemen, businesses, communities and individuals who committed to either riding along, donating funds or volunteering.
The ride took place in June of 2013. Once it was in the books, they faced a choice. To continue or not to continue.
Creating a legacy
“It was supposed to be a one-year deal,” Ashley explained, “but we had such a fun first year, we thought, ‘We have to do it again.’”
Not to mention interest was catching on. Media had begun to cover their endeavors, and supporters, riders and volunteers continued to commit to the project.
So Roger and Ashley decided to make it long-term, with awareness and education as the main focus, followed closely by fundraising.
T4T takes a weeks-long trip once a year. During each ride, an average of 40 horsemen participate every day, followed by ground support of 15-20 people, who help move vehicles, set up camp and scout the route.
As the riders pass through town after town, they take the time to explain their passion and goals by scheduling speaking engagements and visiting with local residents.
“Horses really are the perfect catalyst for conversation,” Ashley said. “It’s the perfect opportunity to share our very simple message: Check the box for organ donation.”
Money raised comes from all over. Riders collect money and sponsors, some individuals mail in donations and others stop the riders on the road to hand them donations. T4T also sells merchandise and raffle tickets and holds silent auctions.
The bulk of T4T’s funds goes toward the Gift of Life House in Rochester, but it also helps other smaller projects and supports the families of donors and recipients.
“We are 100-percent volunteer run. This is all people doing it out of the goodness of their hearts,” Ashley said. “We don’t have an office. We are just strictly volunteer-based, and we chose to do it that way so that you know exactly where your dollar is going. One hundred percent goes toward the cause.”
The final stretch
Now six years into the venture, T4T is a little over 300 miles away from reaching 2,000.
“Back then, we thought, ‘That’s a long way. We’re crazy. Is this humanly possible?’” Ashley recalled. “It is totally possible!”
As they began planning the 2018 ride, they knew they only had 317 miles to go and that their final destination was Rochester. They studied a map and found that Wadena sat in the sweet spot. So it was only natural to kick off their ride at Tri-County Health Care’s Garden of Hope, which honors organ and tissue donors and recipients.
T4T had actually learned of the Garden of Hope the year prior through Barb Nelson-Agnew, hospital liaison with LifeSource. She explained TCHC’s idea for the garden, and T4T jumped at the chance to help. They donated $1,500 to the cause.
On Saturday, May 19, the T4T group rode into Wadena and set up camp at the Wadena County Fairgrounds. TCHC then hosted a dinner for the riders and volunteers, a chance for those touched by organ donation to share their stories. Following the dinner, they visited the Garden of Hope. Then they set out bright and early Sunday morning, launching their two-week-long trip to Rochester.
The 2018 ride will mark the end of T4T’s annual long treks. However, T4T is far from finished. Ashley noted that they may start planning some smaller rides. And most importantly, they hope to maintain the awareness and education part of it.
“Check the box,” she said. “It really is such a positive thing, seeing someone live on and give the gift of life.”
You can sign up to be an organ donor here, at your local DMV, or when you purchase a fishing or hunting license from the DNR in Minnesota.
For more information about T4T, visit trails4transplants.org.