Josh and Shoeless Jo are texting me from somewhere outside Fredericksburg, Texas. They’ve heard rumors of my hospitality from a friend they met on the road who pedaled faster than them. Josh asks if I have room for him in the next couple of days, I worry about my roommate’s patience with all these bicycling vagabonds taking over our living room, and before I can come up with a good answer, he tells me that a friend bought him a room in a hotel downtown but that he’d love to meet up for tacos.

It turns out that we have more than just the fact that we’ve ridden our bicycles across America in common. Josh and I are both people lovers, dog lovers, part-time musicians, and aspiring authors. He included a link to his blog when he first contacted me, and when I sat down to read it, I was mesmerized by his mission. The way he combined a personal journey with something so much bigger than himself exemplifies the way passion and impact can intersect. I was bummed I didn’t get to host him and implored that we had to talk over breakfast tacos.

Before we ever met up for Austin’s most famous food, Austin’s famous allure caught hold of Josh Hart and his furry traveling companion, Shoeless Jo. He texted me to ask if they could stay for a night or two after their hotel reservation ran out and I suggested we meet at my favorite two-steppin’ bar on the east side of Austin. They weren’t hard to find on the outdoor patio, already deep in conversation and bringing grown men to tears with tales of charity and compassion.

Josh founded Operation Elf Box, an Oregon-based charity dedicated to providing families with a Christmas shopping experience without price tags. Through their coast-to-coast bike ride, Josh and Jo are raising awareness and funds for their charity across the country. Thanks to this trip, they have brought Operation Elf Box to states outside of Oregon.

As my temporary roommates, I got to know Josh and Jo well. I watched Josh diligently write postcards to every person who donated to Operation Elf Box or the trip’s GoFundMe page. We swapped stories of bike touring and strange roadside attractions and profoundly personal reasons for spending hundreds of hours in silence on a bicycle. And we talked about the merits of providing the empowering experience that Operation Elf Box offers. Instead of simply accepting pre-wrapped gifts, parents get to pick out items for their own children. Some parents bring their kids to let them pick their dream gifts themselves. That agency and whimsy are indispensable parts of children’s Christmas experiences—making that accessible to everyone is a critical way to strengthen family bonds during what can otherwise be a trying season.OperationElfBox-4

OperationElfBox-1 Josh has done a lot over the years, from driving aid materials from Oregon to Joplin, Missouri after that devastating tornado four years ago to dedicating his bike trip to a cause much larger than himself. He shared stories of playing concerts with musician friends across America to raise money for Joplin and Operation Elf Box. By taking his musical gifts and stubborn willingness to ride a bicycle for a very long time and framing them the right way, he has made a difference in the lives of hundreds of people by simply doing what he loves. That simple truth should be more inspiring than the (super impressive!) mileage he and Jo have covered. If we all came up with ways to help others while helping ourselves, there’s no telling what we could do.

OperationElfBox-3When I pedaled America’s highways and byways, I scarcely told a soul and only stopped at public libraries to email friends and family that I was alive. Josh has used his journey to raise a tremendous amount of awareness for his charity while fulfilling a personal dream of traversing America by bike. It’s an eye-opening example of how a small change in how we do things can make a big difference. The visibility generated by an effusive, loving heart, and an energetic border collie mix on a long bike ride have raised over $8,200 for Operation Elf Box. In addition to a great new friendship, what I really gained from Josh and Jo’s visit was another perspective on the ways we can take our passions and create great change. Sometimes all it requires is a subtle shift in attitude.

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