Giving back: How Team Novo Nordisk transformed three families’ lives
The housing is clearly ramshackle, the dogs are painfully thin. Yet the thing that really brings home the difficulty of life in the village is the sign on the rundown bar: No Menores. No Armas. Dile No Ala Violencia. Cuida tu Familias. [No children. No weapons. Say no to violence. Take care of your families].
Thoughts of people potentially bringing guns into a tiny bar, or indeed having them at all in this shanty town puts things into perspective. Your imagination starts straying, noting the absence of street lights and wondering about the sense of danger that must exist after dark.
Batey Esperanza is clearly a very tough place.
The village in the Dominican Republic is an unusual location for a cycling team to be, but that is precisely the point. Team Novo Nordisk is not your usual pro squad: it is comprised entirely of type one diabetics, and exists in part to prove to others with the condition that it is possible to live an active life.
The team regularly interacts with other diabetics at races and elsewhere, using its platform in professional sports to inspire and encourage.
Come the off-season, and that human side to the squad manifests itself in other ways.
The policy of using unusual activities as a team bonding exercise has been part of cycling for many years. The approach of the former CSC team attracted perhaps the most attention, with riders and staff doing military-style camps in the winter months. Crawling through mud or swimming in freezing water were very different kinds of effort to that normally experienced by pro cyclists, and served to reinforce teamwork and to build bonds.
But why a run-down barrio in the Dominican Republic? Team Novo Nordisk had made the long trip in order to do a bonding exercise of a very different type: knuckling down to build houses for three impoverished families.
It was a leftfield gesture that was intended to transform lives, and not just those who would live in the new dwellings.
Entering another world
Driving down the track into the village, those in the minibuses became silent. Large holes in the road required careful manoeuvring, with the vehicles swerving to avoid each one. The craters and juts were an indication that the area was a poor one; the houses that came into view confirmed that.
Some were cobbled together from corrugated iron sheets. Others used panels and planks of wood, hammered together to create a structure. Many looked makeshift and in need of repair.
As for the occupants, the villagers started with curiosity at the vehicles and those of us inside. Their reactions depended on age; the children appeared excited to see newcomers, running up to the minibuses when they came to a halt. The adults were far more muted, keeping back and looking at the group somewhat warily.
Life clearly is difficult here. Even if the children retain their sense of play and curiosity, their parents have lost optimism. They have lived through difficult times and, consequently, seemed uncertain about the strangers arriving into their territory.
It would take time to earn their trust, even if the aim of the team was to help.
Once out of the buses, the volunteers gathered in front of a large concrete structure for some group photos. Half finished, the two-storey building loomed in the background, missing doors and windows. Off to one side there was a grassy clearing, with more ramshackle dwellings visible beyond.
Closer to the group, a large green building featured a big gate and coils of barbed wire on top of the outer walls. This would turn out to be the local church and school, with the fortifications keeping out unwelcome visitors after hours.
Near that building dogs wandered around, ribs very visible under their skin. These too were wary of strangers and backed away if anyone approached.
Caution was evident everywhere.
Photos done, those organising the Team Novo Nordisk project spoke up about the day’s plans in order to get things under way. In all the group numbered over 80 people. These comprised the Pro Continental team, the development squad, staff from both of those and also some of the office staff from the US.
These were split into three smaller sub-groups which, together with volunteers from the local Homes for Hope organisation, would each construct a house over the two day period.
One of those overseeing the work was Guy East. Clad in a bright orange t-shirt bearing the motif ‘Play Hard, Give Back,’ he stood out from the rest of the group, which was wearing either blue or grey Team Novo Nordisk t-shirts.
The garments also bore the logo of Hope Sports, the group founded by him several years ago.
A former pro who raced with the Trek Livestrong and Kelly Benefit Strategies teams as well as the US national squad, East explained how things came about. He said that an existential crisis led to a complete change in his life direction.
“In 2009 we were competing in the Tour of Mexico,” he told CyclingTips, standing close to some of the run-down dwellings and talking about that turning point. “I saw extreme poverty for the first time and really questioned what I was doing with my life. I wanted to live for a greater purpose and do something in addition to my career.
“I just saw my career as racing everybody to a line on the road and I wanted to leave a legacy and do something that I felt was more significant.
“So, I quit. I sold everything I owned. I grew my hair past my shoulders and lived out of a backpack for two years and travelled Latin America. I ended up in Tihuana, Mexico, and started working with an organisation called Homes of Hope.
“I saw that I could start bringing professional athletes to get engaged in service and to encourage in them to continue to pursue their career in sport, not quit like I did, while living for a greater purpose.”
Looking back to that time, East said that he had struggled with the extreme tunnel vision of racing. More precisely, the obsession with results. The one-dimensional approach to life is one often held up as the ideal for those chasing success in sport, but he argues that it is counter productive.
“From the time we are eight, 10 years old, we’re so used to just living our life for ourselves and being only validated when we win,” he explained. “Most athletes are told that they’re only as good as their last result and so they internalize that.
“It’s a really difficult way to live because, if they’re not performing, then they have no worth or value. Then they go and numb the pain through drugs, sex and alcohol. For me, I was bulimic, anorexic and depressed to the point of, you know, just wanting to end my life.
“That was all because my identity was solely based on my performance. I was just living for myself. Yet when you start to live for other people and when you engage a team like this, it creates a sense of community and engagement and a common purpose that you can’t get if you are in your sporting environment.”
East believes that the bigger sense of purpose can help athletes during their careers. He states that being a well-rounded person who is emotionally healthy is a big advantage when things get tough. Stepping away from the tunnel vision sometimes helps rather than hinders focus.
And so, following the Olympic Games in 2012, he teamed up with approximately 15 athletes, including Ben King, Todd Hendrickson and Daniel Holloway. Drawing on a $30,000 donation, they built their first house.
Years later, he is running the non-profit Hope Sports organization. It aims to unite athletes in serving the poor and, in doing so, to show those sportspeople that there is more to life than just hitting a finish line first.
Thus far the group has built over 30 homes, mostly in Mexico. Aside from the benefits to the local communities there, East said that it has been invaluable for the athletes’ own development. It also prepares them for the day when they finish their careers, helping to remind them that there is always a bigger picture.
Building a bigger future
Divided into three groups, each cluster of people make their way to the locations for the house builds. All are within walking distance of each other and are similarly prepared: a rectangle of concrete has been laid down and dried, and will act as a base for the dwellings. Timber lies nearby, along with various tools, paint and brushes.
The teams quickly get to work, guided by local volunteers who have prior experience with such builds.
The mood is focussed, with the riders’ competitive instincts and teamwork likely a reason for this. However the quality of the work has been emphasised. “It’s not about beating the other groups,” they are told. “The aim is to build houses that will last many years rather than rushing to be first.”
With inquisitive local children looking on and, at times trying to help out, each group further splits into smaller pockets. Some begin painting lengths of wood, while others begin hammering together the framework for the structure.
Things take shape with surprising speed. By 11.30, approximately two and a half hours after we arrived at the village, the four walls of the house are already in place. Being constructed from wood helps greatly in this; this time of year, supposedly the cold period, still sees temperatures close to 30 degrees Celsius, and so there is no need for bricks.
This heat is clear to everyone in the group, with the sun’s rays necessitating frequent applications of sunscreen and also anti-mosquito lotion. Both malaria and the Zika virus are possible dangers, and nobody wants to be caught out.
Once the walls are in place, attention turns to the roof work. Those frames were painted earlier, dried quickly in the heat and are lifted up into place. Several local volunteers walk on top of the walls, showing catlike agility, and hammer things into place.
Others fit the electrics for the houses although, like many other dwellings in the village, the lack of a sewage system plus piped water means that there are no toilets or sinks to install.
This speeds the build but also reinforces the perception that life here is very tough.
Breaking for lunch, the groups use wet wipes for their hands, removing the grime and dust. Each person then tucks into food which had been brought to the build sites. Water is also guzzled, thus replacing the beads of sweat which have been trickling all morning.
One rider becomes faint and turns pale, receiving the attention of the team doctor. It is unclear if the heat or his blood sugar is the reason, but he soon recovers.
Hungry local children hover nearby, with more and more of them stepping forward and asking for food or drink. Prior to the build we had been cautioned about sharing too much too soon, but once the groups have finished eating, those children are also given a portion.
Soon, the noise of hammering resumes again, with the metal roof sheeting being fixed in place.
One of those wielding a hammer is Phil Southerland. Dressed in jeans, a blue Team Novo Nordisk t-shirt and a red baseball hat, the American looks like just another member of the group. His easy, friendly manner reinforces this notion, as well as his relaxed interactions with riders and staff.
However Southerland is the CEO of the team, which made its competitive debut back in 2008 as Team Type 1.
He’s likely the most important person here, yet is completely down to earth. He seeks to lead by example rather than through words alone, and is one of the most enthusiastic about the task at hand.
Southerland himself is a diabetic and former bike racer. He is driven by the thoughts of what the team does and represents, and has a long-term aim of taking it to the Tour de France. The targeted date is 2021, the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin, although if the team can do it sooner than that he will jump at the chance.
Right now, though, he and the team are completely focussed on three small houses in an impoverished village in the Dominican Republic. The Tour, and indeed the peloton, seems a long way away, although the bonds and shared memories forged here will add fuel to the team’s resolve in the weeks and months ahead.
Irish rider Stephen Clancy has been with the team since 2013 and is working on his second build. He contributed to the house construction in Mexico in the autumn of 2015 and said that the Dominican Republic was an even tougher environment for those living there.
“Looking around, there are a lot of new things surrounding me,” he told CyclingTips, describing the scene. “There are a lot of stray dogs, many children with not even shoes on their feet, walking around rubble. There are bits of glass. The homes are built of just scraps of metal, here there and everywhere. There are people washing clothes by hand. It is really eye-opening sight to see.
“As a bike rider, sometimes you question your purpose in life. Your meaning. You wonder if you have any greater significance. So for us to contribute and give back to society is really special. Through that process we can grow closer and develop a greater bond as a team. That should help us on the bike, as well as human beings.”
‘This is going to change so much for us’
By the end of day one, a remarkable amount of work has been done. The vast majority of the structure is in place, including the roof, although the doorframes and window gaps are yet to be filled.
The team packs up and heads back to the minibuses. They return to the hotel for food, relaxation and sleep, then gather again the following morning for a return to Batey Esperanza. This time the villagers are a little less wary, with more interactions between them and the visitors.
They can see what is being done and even if only three families directly benefit this time, there is a process whereby others can apply for future help.
The local pastor is involved in determining which families are helped. Those with greatest need are identified and assisted. For example, the father in one of the families is in the local hospital due to complications with his diabetes at the time of the build.
Due to these complications, he is in danger of losing his leg. Having a place of shelter will be vital if that happens, both for his recovery and also to cope with the challenges further ahead.
“There are more than 5,000 people in the whole community,” Pastor Mercedes explains. “But in this village where we are now, there are about 2,000 people.
“Life here is very difficult because sometimes people don’t have food, don’t have medicines and sometimes they don’t have clothes. It is difficult to live here. But we believe that God is sending people to help, using their resources to give life to the poor people.
“What is happening is very important for the community. I feel bad when the people don’t have a good life. You are all giving happiness to the families, and the families rejoice in that.”
Soon after arriving on day two, several people from each group gather at the minibuses. While the final touches are being made to the houses, including the assembly and installation of furniture such as beds, the families will be brought to the local supermarket to shop.
Southerland is one of those who makes the trip with the families. Shortly before entering the store, he explains what is happening.
“The riders and staff have all put together money so that we can take the family shopping,” he states. “It is great to have a house but it is also nice to have a house with food, with water, with just some basic necessities that can really make it feel like a home.
“It was really great to see the resources that all the guys put together. Now the red, blue and green teams are each going to take their families shopping and help them fill up the home with the things they want to have. It is really a special moment for everybody.”
Southerland points out that many of the children from the village have likely never been in such stores. “They don’t have cars, they don’t have transport. They can get what they need in the village. So for them to even come out there and see the grocery store is great. The smiles on the families faces…it is a beautiful moment for them and I am really grateful that we get to share that.”
Sure enough, the children are beaming as they enter the supermarket. It is reminiscent of a Christmas morning, with visible excitement on their faces as they look around wide-eyed. The families spent the next hour or so picking out food and other items, with the children also getting some clothes and toys.
They are bubbling with excitement when they finally leave the store, as is the mother of one of those families.
“This has been great,” she says in Spanish, smiling broadly. “There were a lot of things that I needed. I really wasn’t expecting this and so I am just super-grateful. I am really happy.
“This house and everything in it is going to change things so much for us. We were living in my mother’s house before, me and my daughter. My husband and son were somewhere else. Then we all ended up in one room together in my mom’s house.
“Having our own place will change so much. The kids are going to be able to have their own room. We are going to be able to be together as a family, which is what I was really wanting and needing.”
The smiles remained for the rest of the day, not least because when she and the others returned the houses were completed. The supplies were carried to the buildings and brought inside, after which each group gathered outdoors for the symbolic handover of keys.
Each person involved in the bid gave their thoughts to the families. Many wished them well, while others thanked them for what they said was a life-changing experience.
“I am so happy that we were able to give you guys some hope,” said one rider.
“It was a really great experience to build this house and for it to become your home now,” said another. “I hope your life will be better now.”
“It was one of the best experiences in my life. I am very proud to be part of this,” stated a third.
Southerland, too, was moved.
“For me, I think this all gave us great hope to get a chance to give you hope,” he said. “It is proud for me, for my organisation and my team to come together and provide this home to you. We hope this is the start of a new and successful chapter in your life.”
Kelly Diodati, who works on the Team Novo Nordisk staff as its executive administrative assistant, was particularly emotional.
“Thank you for the absolute privilege,” she said, through tears.
Watching at the families’ beaming smiles, it was clear what the house build had meant to them. But looking around at the riders and staff, the significance of what they had done was also obvious.
The memories of what they had been part of will linger, into the 2017 racing season but also for a long, long time after.
As Guy East said, the lives touched are not only those of the families.
Check out more photos in the gallery below: