Lee DeRemer has relatives who adopted seven children from abroad in the early 2000s.
In 2008, the father died of cancer, leaving the mother with seven children, ages 16 and younger, still adjusting to a new country and language.
In 2009, DeRemer, a retired United States Air Force pilot, felt a need “to fill in the gap left by the dad’s departure.” He took the two oldest boys, ages 17 and 14, on 25-day, 1,150-mile bicycle ride through rain, snow and heat in Montana and Wyoming.
“We pedaled over mountain passes and through National Parks, just being together,” says DeRemer, of Wrightsville and a member of East Hempfield Township’s Community Fellowship Church. “We did hardly any training and had no business being there, but I felt God protected us and provided for us throughout the trip.”
On the last day, the trio rode 100 miles because DeRemer wanted the boys to know what they were capable of.
Thoughts about reaching out to more fatherless boys simmered in DeRemer’s mind for the next five years.
“They shouldn’t have to find their way to adulthood without a man in their lives,” DeRemer says. “Some moms work two jobs while raising two or three or four children, trying to pay rent or a mortgage, and they don’t have a spouse to help carry the load. It’s such a burden.”
Last year, DeRemer’s thoughts coalesced around a plan.
DeRemer put his joy of working with teens together with his love of the outdoors and many years of bicycling to create LifeCycles, with the tagline “Building Young Men of Character” and the motto “Changing lives one ride at a time.”
LifeCycles is open to boys ages 11 to 19, both those “who may be getting overlooked, who don’t have a father figure or positive male role model” and those who have both parents.
“We don’t say ‘no’ to anyone,” DeRemer says.
To find the former, DeRemer spoke to boys at the Water Street Mission and to churches in the city. But the best recruiters, he says, are the boys themselves who invite their friends.
DeRemer spoke at churches and business club meetings to recruit adult male mentors.
This year, 15 boys from a wide range of family backgrounds, and 13 mentors, from Community Fellowship and four other churches, biked three times a week from April 1 to Oct. 1.
On Tuesday evenings, they rode in Freedom Park, in Millersville; on Thursday evenings, Riverfront Park, in Marietta. On Saturdays, they met at Community Fellowship and took a 15-passenger van to a different rural location each time, cycling a 40- to 50-mile loop “to explore the world and dare to dream,” DeRemer says.
In August, nine of the boys and seven mentors rode to Niagara Falls, New York, starting north of Harrisburg, cycling 300 miles in eight days and camping out in the evenings. DeRemer says after the boys cycled up a tall mountain, he could see in their faces that they realized they could do more than they thought they could.
“It was safe,” says DeRemer. “No one was injured or sick. We had a blast.”
Next summer, they plan to ride two weeks in Canada; in 2017, all summer across the country.
“I think it will be life-changing,” says DeRemer.
In the offseason, DeRemer has arranged for the boys to swim at an aquatic club on Tuesdays and is searching for a fitness center where they can work out on Thursdays.
DeRemer begins each gathering with a Bible verse, such as Jeremiah 29:11:“ ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
LifeCycles rests on three pillars: Spiritual growth, physical challenge and the development of life skills — independent living, setting goals, personal finance, decision making and taking responsibility for themselves — through mentoring into adulthood.
“Too often, we tell teens what they can’t do,” says DeRemer. “It’s a lot healthier letting them find out what they’re capable of.”
LifeCycles is free of charge. DeRemer finds partners to pay for bicycles, trips, uniforms and safety gear. To make a donation, go to www.lifecyclesteam.org.
“All we ask of the boys is just to show up and be coachable,” DeRemer says. “And they do.”
A life changed
Philip Gomba, 17, was one of the boys who cycled to Niagara Falls. Before that, Gomba, who joined LifeCycles in June, didn’t really know his fellow riders very well. During the trip, that changed.
“Everyone really connected, and we got to know each other very well,” says Gomba, who lives with his mother, Margaret Rios Gomba, following his parents’ recent divorce.
“Every day we would go to a new campsite. Seeing all the boys working together, setting up camp in a short time, with everyone encouraging each other, definitely helped me.”
Gomba graduated from Penn Manor High School in June and will begin basic training in the U.S. Air Force in Texas on Jan. 5. Even though he planned to join the Air Force before he met DeRemer, he said DeRemer definitely was helpful in the process.
“I was still unsure,” Gomba said. “I wasn’t sworn in then. I was trying to decide if it was the right thing for me. He helped me make the decision.”
“(LifeCycles) has definitely helped me, especially on the Niagara Falls trip, with mental strength, with tough times. It just really taught me how to not give up on things and to keep working toward my goals.”