Queen’s exchange student completes cross-border bike journey for charity

Fenski poses in front of City Hall before his journey

An exchange student from Queen’s University has raised nearly $3000 for the Kingston Youth Shelter thanks to the coldest bike ride he’s ever faced.

Raphael Fenski, a German student studying Commerce at Queen’s for the Fall ’23 semester, kicked off his “Race Against the Cold” journey on December 4 that would take him 1000 KM from Kingston to the capital of the United States, Washington, D.C.

While he’s done expansive cycling journeys before, a winter trek in less bike friendly infrastructure (compared to Europe) brought new challenges.

Fenski said he discovered his school schedule permitted him quite a bit of free time in December and he was keen to use that time to pursue some kind of physical challenge, and decided to use the opportunity to link it to some kind of social cause.

He said he didn’t have an existing connection with Kingston Youth Shelter, but that he has a personal connection to homelessness that made the Youth Shelter’s work a cause that he wanted to support.

“My uncle was homeless as well and he lived in Berlin on the streets for dozens of years, actually” Fenski said.

“A couple of years ago, he passed away in the winter in Berlin because it was too cold… he was a similar age, actually, than the people who are clients from the Kingston Youth Shelter. Without a stable support network and due to various reasons, including drugs… to come on that path and not be able on his own to leave that path, I don’t wish that to anybody.”

Fenski said he admires the work of organizations like the Kingston Youth Shelter who look to help young people get away from that path and the consequences it could lead to.

Fenski’s trip took him nine days, initially planned as an eight day excursion but a day filled with flat tires forced plans to change.

He used a platform called Warm Showers, which is kind of a couchsurfing app for cyclists, and was offered places to stay throughout his journey, with many of the hosts also contributing as some of his most generous donors.

He says people along the way were extremely accommodating, especially considering he was embarking on the ride for a charitable cause.

“I had to say to certain people, ‘oh, sorry I can’t stay at your place because I’m already staying at another place’,” Fenski said.

“I don’t know if that’s related due to the time of the year, that it’s quite unusual that somebody cycles in the winter and therefore people have more time. But I think more strongly related to this to the fact that there is a social cause, people are willing to support that.”

Fenski has been garnering donations through a Go Fund Me page, and with 83 donations total he has well surpassed his goal of $2000 and is nearing $3000 raised.

He said he was well outfitted with solid gear and had generous hosts welcoming him on a nightly basis, but even with those buffers in place it gave him a greater appreciation for what some of the Youth Shelter clients might go through on a regular basis.

Fenski said on one evening in particular he arrived later than expected had to wait almost an hour for a host to return from a meeting.

While standing around in the biting cold was a challenge, he said more jarring was being approached by neighbours who thought he may be in the area with bad intentions.

Fenski says he felt like that situation gave him a peek into the day to day experience of unhoused people.

“For most of the time, I was lucky to be in constant movement and to have all my layers and not too experience too much cold,” Fenski said.

“That moment where I got rejected and freezing at the same time, let me kind of maybe get a feeling of how it could be for people facing the elements every day and not having a stable home. And that was tough, I have to say.”

Jay Nowak, Executive Director of the Kingston Youth Shelter, says it was a surprise to be contacted by Raphael with this idea but they were grateful and happy to be the beneficiary of his ride.

Nowak says monetary donations go a long way to helping the Youth Shelter to make a difference in the community, and they’re also looking for tangible items like socks, underwear, and jackets that people can come to the shelter for.

He says the shelter has funding support, but it really just allows them to do the bare minimum to support clients in need.

“Our operational budget is not very large as I’m sure you’re aware, as a nonprofit we are were funded through United Way of Kingston, the City of Kingston and then the rest of our funding come through donations and fundraising events,” Nowak said.

“Monetary donations go a long way as well allows us to do a lot of extra.”

The shelter’s operational costs have gone up in the last year too, moving into a larger building that can accommodate 24 beds as opposed to 16.

Fenski’s fundraiser for the Youth Shelter is still accepting donations.