By Emily Sperduto, Catherine Papoutsis, and Irfan Uraizee
SYRACUSE (NCC News)—When Andrew Lunetta graduated from Le Moyne College last May, he was still trying to figure out what he wanted to do next. So the very next day he hopped on his bike and pedaled straight to the West Coast.
Lunetta, 23, organized his cross-country trek as a fundraiser for the Brady Faith Center, a local Catholic ministry through which he initiated a bike program for the homeless during his senior year at Le Moyne.
“During that trip I was at a loss,” Lunetta said. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to spend time in California or in South America, but I realized how much I missed Syracuse and my work here.”
Fast-forward seven months later, and it is clear that Lunetta has built a community—from Midland Avenue, where he lives with three formerly homeless men, to the Brady Faith Center on South Ave, where he leads bike rides three mornings a week for 25 homeless individuals—that is glad he returned to Syracuse.
Take a look at some of Lunetta’s initiatives in the slideshow below. Note: A Mozilla Firefox or Safari browser is needed to view this slideshow.
Small-Scale Initiatives Cultivate Compassion and Hope
More than 120 bikers have “graduated” from Pedal to Possibilities, a program in which homeless individuals ride as a group to promote an active lifestyle and build a sense of community.
Riders earn their own bicycles after 10 rides, yet many members have become regulars, returning for the friendship as much as for the exercise.
“When I got my certificate, I started crying,” said Debra Metz, 56, who bikes 45 minutes to get to the program each morning. “To me, it’s a big accomplishment.”
What makes the program so special, explained Marilyn Goulet, who volunteers three times a week, is Andrew’s passion and commitment to his fellow bikers.
Recently one member became ill and worried she would have to drop out of the program, Goulet recalled. The next morning Andrew returned with a tandem bicycle and pedaled with her for the next several weeks.
“His heart is so gigantic,” Goulet said. “He has incredible respect, and deep concern, for absolutely everybody.”
Pedal to Possibilities connected Andrew to his three roommates, who had been staying at local shelters before they moved into the home in October. Lunetta conceived the idea while working at the Oxford Street Inn.
“Shelters breed complacency, Lunetta said. “It’s easy to wake up, go out and find a couple bucks, get high or get drunk and then go back and do the same thing every single day. I saw that having a good positive community that embraces sobriety and employment, or volunteerism, as something that’s absolutely vital to progressing.”
Lunetta was amazed by the outpour of support from the community when he started the home, he said. Neighbors have cooked dinner for them, and one woman has even asked to help them start a garden.
For Lunetta’s roommates, the friendship that they have developed in the past couple months has been very rewarding, they said.
“The funny thing is, he’s only 23, and I can talk to that guy about things that I just normally wouldn’t talk to people about,” said Bob Birchmeyer, 56, smiling at Lunetta. “There’s that much trust already.”
Each roommate pays $150 a month in rent, and while donations from the community help fund the home, Lunetta earns a small income on staff at the Brady Faith Center for running Pedal to Possibilities.
When Lunetta first discussed his salary with Kevin Frank, director of the Brady Faith Center, Frank was stunned by Lunetta’s selflessness.
“He was asking for a really small amount,” Frank said. “Most people will go into a job out of college and they’re trying to get their income up, and here Andrew is, trying to get his down! He was like, ‘I don’t know if you can do [afford] it or not.’ I said, Andrew, we’re going to do more than that,” Frank laughed.
Lunetta Developed An Early Commitment to Service
Throughout his childhood, Lunetta said his parents pushed the values of social justice and accepted everyone into their family.
“We always had people over to our house—random people from the street or friends of friends who needed a place to stay,” Lunetta said. “So that was always kind of in my blood.”
The summer before high school, Lunetta traveled to Peru to visit his great aunt, who has been a nun there for 50 years. Lunetta saw how his aunt’s community embraced her, and he admired how she shared that same love back.
“That summer was incredibly transformative for me,” Lunetta said. “Every time I go into a situation I think about how my aunt would handle it.”
After high school, Lunetta debated whether college was the right route for him. He took a year off and joined an AmeriCorps program in Ohio as a substitute teacher at an inner city school.
“I saw everyone at my high school just going blindly straight into college without taking time to think about what they really cared about,” Lunetta said.
There in Ohio, Lunetta discovered his profound care for the poor. Since then, he has wanted to lead his life, committed to helping others, in whatever capacity or career he could, he said.
This realization led him to apply to the Peace and Global Studies program at Le Moyne, where he quickly immersed himself in community service at a local shelter and soup kitchen.
“He always seemed like he was doing more than the average undergraduate would do,” said Dr. Farha Ternikar, Andrew’s adviser at Le Moyne and director of the Peace and Global Studies Program. “He was a student that was wise beyond his years.”
Lunetta Seeks Solutions & Social Justice: Future Plans
Hoping to study public administration in the Maxwell School at Syracuse University in June, Lunetta has not yet determined the next steps for his programs when his lease expires next October.
However, Lunetta said he sees his initiative at the home as a long-term, sustainable solution for homeless ministry in reducing homelessness.
“I look back in my life and realize that any success that I’ve had is because of the family and friends that have been surrounding, encouraging, and supporting me,” Lunetta said. “Everyone has the power to do great things. They just need a place that fosters that ambition.”