GUILFORD – It all started when foster kid Noah Ehlert got his very first bike at age 13.
Decades later, through sunshine and freezing temperatures, rain, hail and dust storms, Ehlert rode his bicycle from California to Florida with one thing on his mind — children living in foster care.
This Guilford resident’s 3,100-mile bike trek, across the lower 48, in early 2020, was four years in the planning. He documented it in his two-hour film, “Discover Your Path Tour, A Journey To Inspire.”
The two-hour film is available for rental or purchase at vimeo.com/ondemand/discoveryourpathtour and includes drone shots, heart-to-heart conversations with participants in the foster care system, as well as those that work with these children, and very honest and raw conversations with Ehlert.
All proceeds will go towards creating a transitional living program for youth aging out of the foster care system called the Discover Your Path House, planned for Guilford.
Ehlert is passionate about this issue. Growing up, in Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Florida, he was one of those children.
Born in Wisconsin to a 15-year-old girl with a history of addiction and mental illness, Ehlert “bounced around a lot,” until he was 18-years-old.
“Looking at my life now, as a 42-year-old, and I have three kids of my own, I never saw this as a possibility for my life to turn out like this,” he says. “It really seemed like a longshot.
“I really wanted to find a way to give back and maybe give back and be a voice for the 11-year-old kid that was me living in a group home and runaway and youth shelter,” he adds.
Included in the documentary is footage from the Guilford-based Wishing Wheels Holiday Bike Drive, that has been delivering bikes to children in need since 2016.
“The thing that I would want to instill in them is that they’re going to have the same opportunity to give back to somebody else one day,” Ehlert says, addressing the bike drive participants in the documentary.
“One day they are going to find their footing, they’re going to find their way and they are going to be able to return the favor,” he continues.
“That really is what it is to me, is just making it real – we know things are tough right now, but with this bike we hope that we can change just one aspect of your life and we hope that that change could just keep things going for you,” he adds.
Jumping on a bike and taking off is almost second nature to Ehlert. It was a life changing event being gifted a bike at 13-years-old, after living a group home.
“That kind of gave me a direction, so I knew that biking was something I wanted to do to help raise awareness,” Ehlert recalls.
“It definitely affected my confidence and it gave me an outlet,” he adds. “Instead of getting in trouble, I would just ride my bike all the time.”
At 14, he entered a bike race and won. Over the years he continued to win races, signing on with a sponsor at 15.
“It was a very serious sport for me,” Ehlert recalls.
So, getting back on a bike for a cause that he is passionate about was second nature to Ehlert.
He was accompanied, along the way, by Tra Dion, who rode and did camera work and Victor Kalogiannis and Graham Nolte, both of whom were behind the camera.
In addition, many people joined in for shorter rides.
His nine-week journey took him to 14 group homes where he was able to connect with staff and residents.
“I just talked to kids about overcoming adversity and I wanted to let them know that the struggles that they were going through, right then, that they wouldn’t last forever because I once went through them and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” he says.
Amy Manning, community liaison at Family Resources in St. Petersburg, Fla., says Ehlert’s personal visits were impactful.
“He was looking a kid in the eye and saying, ‘I know, I’ve been there,’” she says.
“I know in our St. Pete’s shelter that was a big thing for him to be able to sit in a chair in the shelter that he stayed in and say, ‘I stayed in that room and this is where I am today’ and I think that made a big impression on the youth that we serve,” she adds.
At one point in the documentary, a very teary Ehlert laments that with the onset of COVID-19 some of these visits would be have to be cancelled and the trip would change.
“Just knowing that my family’s not going to be able to be at the finish line,” he says, facing the reality of the pandemic.
“And now knowing that all the events need to be cancelled for obvious reasons and there’s less than 300 miles left and I have to play it by ear if I’ll be able to actually visit these last six shelters that I’m supposed to visit and we have to keep the kids safe,” he adds. “So, I’m just going to try to carry on.”
Biking 50 – 75 miles a day, Ehlert’s bike tour ended at Family Resources Safe Place to Be in St. Petersburg, Fla., the group home Ehlert lived in at 11-years-old.
“I’ve been doing this work, specifically with runaway and homeless youth and children in the child welfare system since 1998 and one thing we don’t every expect or count on or need is to know what happens to individual kids that we help,” says John Robertson, membership services director, Florida Network of Youth and Family Services.
“So, I said from the day I met Noah, ‘You’re a time capsule,’” he continues. “There’s no way that something like this is going to happen again, I think, in my career.
“To have a former client show up, knocking on the door,” he adds. “It’s almost like every youth care worker’s fantasy, ‘Maybe they’ll come back and thank me someday.’”
Ehlert’s life has changed dramatically since those days in foster care.
It was in 2015 that Ehlert and his wife, Julianna, moved to Guilford. They are raising their three children, Avery, 8; Baidis, 4; and Bennett, 2.
Together, this husband-and-wife team make up Tiny Human Photography, focusing on wedding photography.
It is Ehlert’s hope that the transitional living home be built in Guilford. He says is the perfect place to raise his family and also the perfect place to continue to his mission of helping children in need.
“I feel that it has all the qualities to help get a lot of these young adults the support that really need,” he says.
“When you come from a place where you are rejected and neglected by the people that, are inherently supposed to care for you, like your biological parents, when that doesn’t happen you rely on friends, community, neighbors, to somehow show you that support and care so you can build confidence in yourself,” Ehlert says.
It is this transitional living space that Ehlert hopes to make these young adults feel safe and see hope in the future.
“I really hope that we can get some kids in the Discover Your Path house that have aged out or are aging out of foster care and just really help them find the motivation they need to live the life that they can live,” Ehlert says, adding that the youths will come from all over the state.
Amy Manning applauds Ehlert on reaching out and spreading a message of hope.
“It was just really great to see somebody come back who is thriving and just had such a heart to help kids that were growing in a situation similar to the way that he grew up,” says Manning, community liaison for Family Resources in St. Petersburg.
“His positivity and his heart for youth is amazing,” she adds.
Robertson commends Ehlert’s effort to make a difference for these young adults.
“The group of people he’s talking about haven’t done anything wrong, maybe ever,” Robertson stresses. “Their issue is that they don’t have what so many of us had after high school, which was a parental safety net or a family network.”
Ask Ehlert what he would say to community members who are reticent about welcoming these young adults into their neighbor.
“I am these kids and I live here,” he says, passionately.
“I’m getting all worked up here, now,” Ehlert says. “To all the people that want to say, ‘We don’t want those kids here,’ those kids are your best chance at a good strong community.”
“They want to help and give back more than any other kid I have met and I am incredibly passionate it,” he adds. “I will prove to them, they are not here to cause trouble, they’re here to feel safe and secure and I want the community to show them that this is the place they can do that.”