Editor’s Note: In April, community banks across the country celebrate Community Banking Month. BankBeat has republished this article in collaboration with the Independent Community Bankers of Minnesota to recognize Lakeview Bank and Tom Mork as an outstanding example of the ways community bankers better their communities.
For Minnesota banker Tom Mork, the fight against mental illness is personal, and spurred him to climb on a bike for a six weeks a few summers back to raise funds for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The president and CEO of Lakeview Bank, Lakeville, Minn., rode more than 2,000 miles from the Gulf of Mexico along the Mississippi to its headwaters in Lake Itasca, Minn. During the ride, he and his team raised more than $100,000 for the Minnesota chapter of NAMI.
Mork was inspired by his daughter’s struggle with mental health issues during her senior year of college in California in 2010. In the immediate aftermath of her diagnosis and hospitalization, he and his wife were left scrambling for information and the support they desperately needed. Mork in particular was left bewildered and struggling.
“NAMI was the resource we turned to when our daughter was hospitalized. We really needed the education at that point,” Mork said. “I was really impressed by their passion.”
NAMI offers education, support and advocacy for those suffering from mental illness as well as their families. When Mork approached the executive director of NAMI Minnesota, Sue Abderholden, about fundraising for the nonprofit, she embraced his initiative. “She didn’t know me from Adam when I emailed about doing this bike ride in support of NAMI, but she said ‘Sure, let’s meet and talk about it,’” he said. He saw the trip as a way of helping other parents in similar situations.
Mork grew up in the small Minnesota town of Lowry biking everywhere, but turned to running in high school and college. He might never have gotten back on a bike if it weren’t for the recession’s tough impact. Lakeview Bank was one of four Twin Cities banks formed in 2004, two of which failed during the recession. “Our survival was in question at times,” he said. “I was going home and drinking more alcohol than I should have as a means of dealing with the severe problems facing the bank.”
One day he realized he needed to pull himself together and he began running again, but it quickly took a punishing toll on his knees. Instead, he pulled a bike down from the rafters in his garage that he hadn’t used in 10 years and rode to the store to buy a helmet. “I rode 5 miles that day and realized I felt pretty good,” he said. Soon he was participating in 100-mile races and rode multiple times in the C.H. Robinson MS 150, a two-day, 150-mile ride from Duluth to Minneapolis which benefits the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Originally, Mork wanted to recreate childhood vacation routes on the West Coast as a bucket list item for his 60th birthday. “The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that was a little bit too self-centered,” he said. At the time, he was still helping his daughter as she worked through her mental health issues. Mork asked his daughter to let him tell her story and turn the bike trip into a fundraising and awareness effort. She agreed, and Tom’s Big Ride was born.
After discussions with his wife, he decided a route closer to home would make logistics simpler. Additionally, staging it in the Midwest would make it easy for additional participants and fundraisers to join in.
They formed an advisory committee which first met in April 2013 and spent the next two years planning the route along the Mississippi River Trail. They decided to start at the Gulf of Mexico and work upstream to symbolize the uphill fight many people face in dealing with their own mental illness or that of a loved one.
The bikers dipped their back tires in the ocean in Venice, La., on July 6 and headed north. Some 2,117 miles later, they dipped their front tires in Lake Itasca at 2 p.m. on Aug. 13. Three others rode the entire route with Mork, while an additional 20 to 25 others joined them for various legs of the trip.
Mork kept a blog during the trip, writing a post for every day of the ride (see the blog’s archive at http://tomsbigride.org). He detailed the group’s struggles with flat tires, washed out roads and steep hills as well as their encounters with people along the way. He also set up a Facebook page whose following swelled to 650 by the end of the trip, up from 100 followers as he set out from Louisiana.
“A couple times I couldn’t update the blog [right away] because the power was out or something else, and I would get texts and posts on Facebook asking ‘Where’s the blog post?’” Mork said.
A typical day on the road began with a 5 a.m. alarm. The riders ate breakfast and were generally on the road by 6:30, trying to get a majority of the leg under their belts before the heat of the day. They were into their next hotel by late afternoon, leaving plenty of time for the evening meal, any necessary bike repair and the day’s blog post. “We’re all pretty driven business people,” Mork said. “We looked at it like this was our job for those next six weeks.”
After closing the fundraising account on Dec. 31, the official total was $110,000 and change, including a few donations made late in the year.
While there are no plans for a similar venture in the future, Mork still enjoys long distance biking. “Immediately after the ride, I said I would never, ever do that again. It was just too demanding,” he said. “But two months later I was thinking, maybe another bucket list trip when I retire or when I turn 70 but probably not to the same extent of organization and planning.”
Mork has given several presentations on the trip and his efforts to raise awareness about mental health issues since his return, and has at least one more scheduled for August — a year after he finished the trip.
A longtime Rotarian, Mork gave a few presentations at Rotary clubs along the route. At one stop in Louisiana, a woman spoke of her more than 18 years struggling with depression; the club president, who had known her for years, was stunned to learn about it. Other people Mork met shared similar stories of years of struggle without adequate information or support. One young man had Attention Deficit Disorder which made his childhood so miserable he said he would rather have died of a heart attack because in that case people would have understood that he had an illness.
Mork hopes his work will help remove some of the stigma surrounding mental illness. “Statistics are that one in four deal with mental illness of some kind at any given time, whether it’s something like anxiety or a schizo-affective disorder. It affects all of us,” he said. “People are looking for permission to talk about it.”