South Charlotte

Kayak trip on Mississippi aims to help others

Bowman Hitchens, 22, was introduced to the issue of homelessness through youth group mission trips at Myers Park United Methodist Church.

"I developed a deep-rooted relationship with homeless people and issues, and a strong desire to do something to help them," said the 2007 Covenant Day graduate.

Hitchens continued his commitment to the homeless as a student at the University of Mississippi, where he is now a senior, by volunteering with Interfaith Compassion Ministries, an Oxford, Miss.-based United Way organization serving the city's homeless population.

This summer, Hitchens plans to present ICM a check for $50,000, which he hopes will benefit homeless children in Oxford. Hitchens will raise the funds when he and three friends take a 60-day, 2,300-mile kayaking trip down the Mississippi River.

The four friends - Hitchens' college roommate Rob Treppendahl and two friends from Louisiana State University, Max Zoghby and David Bonnoitt - have been raising money through individual and corporate sponsors for their summer adventure.

They hope to raise $100,000 by the end of August; $50,000 will go to ICM and $50,000 to The Gardere School in Baton Rouge, La., where Zoghby and Bonnoitt are volunteers.

The kayaking idea came to Hitchens last summer, when he hiked the Colorado Trail from Denver to Durango, a feat that covered 487 miles and took 33 days. Hitchens had time to reflect on his faith and how he could make an impact.

"I felt like I was called to do something," he said. "Something big."

Hitchens knew he wanted to raise money for the homeless and that he needed to do so "in a way that's connected to how they live and sacrifice."

The kayaking adventure will be an endeavor requiring the hardship and sacrifice Hitchens sought.

"We'll be essentially homeless, camping by the side of the river each night, eating sparingly and with a certain degree of discomfort," he said.

Part of Hitchens' epiphany was to share the journey with others. He first approached Treppendahl, and together they joined forces with Zoghby and Bonnoitt.

"We all feel like we were meant to do this together," Hitchens said.

The friends have consulted park rangers about what to expect and how best to navigate the river, including the 29 locks and dams they will encounter, as well as the sections of the river that are only three feet wide. They have been training on the nearby Talahachee River in Mississippi to build strength and endurance.

"It will be the hardest thing we've ever done," Hitchens said.

They plan to start their journey at Lake Itsca, Minn., on June 20 and complete it in New Orleans on Aug. 20.

Corporate sponsors, like the sports store where Treppendahl works that donated most of the equipment they will need for the journey, are getting on board.

"We've set up different tiers of sponsorship," Hitchens said, noting they also have come up with marketing initiatives like T-shirts and wristbands. Most of the money they raise will be through individual donors, who will be kept up to date on the group's progress through Twitter and their website.

Hitchens is excited about making a contribution to the homeless and hopes to encourage others to follow his lead.

"Our vision for this whole trip is to inspire people to get involved in their community," said Hitchens.