Voice of the Leader Dog Community: Mark Mansell

Mark Mansell stands in the canine center lobby on Leader Dog's campus. He is smiling and holding a black lab Leader Dog puppy. His wife, Debbie, is smiling and looking at the puppy

Part 1: Introduction

Mark stands next to a bicycle with a small trailer attached. He is equipped in riding gearHello, I am Lion Mark Mansell. It has been nearly a decade since a crazy idea to ride a bicycle solo across America in support of Leader Dogs for the Blind began to form. This was the beginning of my entry into the Leader Dog community. My life (and my Lions [club] life) since has taken a very different course than I ever imagined. Leader Dogs for the Blind positively changes lives of people, regardless of whether blind, visually impaired, or… a fully sighted person like me.

So, over the course of the day, I will be sharing a series of posts telling a bit about my journey and how my life has changed because of the “opportunities” afforded me by Leader Dogs for the Blind. None of these events would have occurred if not for the many wonderful people in this community. For this I am eternally grateful.

My goal for each post is to show that stepping into the unknown when doors open can take you places you’ve never imagined. I also hope my story will help you to reflect on your own connected series of “opportunities” that have shaped your life.

Being asked to take over the Leader Dogs for the Blind social media for a day is another “opportunity” and who knows where it will lead. Well, into the unknown we go! This is my story… one about a Lion who had a crazy idea of going for a long bicycle ride.  Little did I know it would take me farther than just 3,497 miles. I hope you enjoy the ride.

Part 2: What is Leader Dogs for the Blind?

If all of us in the Leader Dog community reflected back in time, I am sure each of us have had a moment where we thought or stated out loud… “What is Leader Dogs for the Blind?” For me, my wonder moment occurred more than 12 years ago during my first year as treasurer of my Lions club.

I was handed a budget that was for the most part, simply a roll-over budget from past years. Being relatively new to the club with no history on most expenditures, I scanned down the budget list. I came to an expenditure of $100 for Leader Dogs. When I asked the other members what this expenditure was, there was a very long silence. Finally, one member (Lion Janet) spoke up and said, “Leader Dogs provides guide dogs for the blind.

I remember saying, “If we don’t know why we are making donations to groups or organizations, maybe we should rethink making contributions.” I said I would do some research on Leader Dog and give a report at our next meeting. Without even knowing it, I had just become the de facto Leader Dog chairperson for my club.

I often think, what would have happened if Lion Janet had not known anything about Leader Dog? Little did I know then, but that simple bit of knowledge she shared changed my life… and set me off on a grand adventure! But the beginning of that story is for the next post.

Part 3: Adventures can start from simple statements!

Often, people can recall when events occur that reshape their world. For me, two statements launched my bicycle ride across America for Leader Dog.

Mark and another person ride their bikes toward the camera on a paved road on a sunny day.The first occurred at a conference as I talked with a friend (Sergio). We started talking bicycling when he stated, “When I retire, I want to ride my bicycle across the country.” Until then, a “long” ride for me was five or six miles. To ride from coast to coast had never crossed my mind. So, my reaction was… “THAT’S CRAZY!!” His enthusiasm was clear and intriguing as he went on to explain his dream.

Well, I was hooked! Somehow his statement tweaked my DNA. I could not stop thinking about it. I shared the story with my wife (Lion Debbie) and soon thereafter we decided to try bicycle camping (carrying your camping gear on your bike). We bought some new bikes and actually made a few “short” trips (200+/- miles each). Still, these trips were not even close to a 3,500 mile solo ride lasting a few months.

Then one day I said to Debbie, “I think I would like to ride my bicycle across America.” She knows me well and could see this coming. She calmly replied, “Then you should do it.” However, that was not her most impactful statement. She then said, “When you do your ride, you should raise money for Leader Dog.”

These two short statements by two people in my life (Sergio and Debbie) set me on a life-changing adventure! But getting from idea to reality, well… that’s where the fun really began!

Part 4: Avoiding the “Nutter” pile

Now that I had decided (and received approval of Lion Debbie) for the coast-to-coast ride, I needed to reach out to Leader Dog and see if they would be willing to work with me. To not look like some “over edge” crazy, we began working on putting a plan together.

Cycling for Leader Dogs pin with graphic of a bicycler with an American flag in the backgroundAfter lots of preparation (website, trip maps, blog, logo, etc.), I emailed Leader Dog in late fall of 2011 to introduce myself as a Lion from Washington state. I was going to ride a bicycle from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine and wanted to raise money for them. As I pressed the send button, I wondered if they would even reply given how “out of the ordinary” this idea was.

Well, a few days later I received a reply email requesting a conference call to discuss the trip. This was my first interaction with anyone at Leader Dog and to say the least I was blown away! Mike Dengate, Kathleen Breen, Brad McKenna, Melissa Weisse and the whole team were excited about the idea and willing to help… on one condition. Debbie and I needed to travel to Leader Dog in Michigan to learn more about what they do and to better speak about their mission during the ride.

We wholeheartedly agreed to make the trip and this experience opened our eyes to the true impact that Leader Dog has in the lives of the blind and visually impaired. But that story is for the next post. One thing is certainly true though, I am so grateful that the Leader Dog team didn’t toss that email from the crazy bicycling Lion into the “Nutter” pile. If they had, my life would not be the same today!

Part 5: Leader Dog campus visit – Our Lion’s moment!

All Lions have probably heard that when you join Lions, you become a member. But there comes a time you truly grasp what it means to serve. When this happens, it is called your “Lion’s moment” and that’s when we truly become a LION! For Debbie and me, the trip to the Leader Dog campus in 2012 provided us our Lion’s moment.

A man wearing a blindfold walks with a Leader Dog in harness while another man holds the dog's leash loosely on the other sideThe trip occurred in late winter, just a handful of months before the start of the ride. We knew much about the incredible Leader Dog history and how three Lions started the organization in 1939. Yet getting this chance to meet the many talented staff, grateful clients, dedicated volunteers and of course… so many wonderful future Leader Dogs was such a gift!

But it was the experience of being invited to observe what is called “issue day” that changed us as Lions. Issue day is when the Leader Dog and the client come together for the first time. Observing the joy, excitement and awakening of the client who in that moment realizes their whole world was about to change for the better provided us with our Lion’s moment!

We came to Michigan as Leader Dog supporters and left as ambassadors. Even more important though, we boarded the plane home as LIONS! Lions energized to make the Cycling for Leader Dogs effort a success; not only for raising funds, but to tell the Leader Dog story to everyone who would listen. What we didn’t realize at the time was how that trip to the Leader Dog campus would blow open our Lions world.  But that story begins in the next post.

Part 6: Idea to reality – Our Lions world just got bigger!

Up until 2012, our Lions world essentially was our small club of thirty members. Lion Debbie and I knew very little of Lions beyond the club level. What is a Zone meeting? How many clubs are in our district? Multiple District 19… what’s that? But upon returning from Michigan, we knew that to share the Leader Dog story more widely we needed to connect into the Lions world in ways we never considered previously.

Mark stands with his bicycle and a group of people all smiling for the photo. They're standing outdoors in front of a treeIt began by visiting neighboring clubs for the first time, attending Presidents’ councils and zone meetings, setting up display tables at conferences, etc. to share the Leader Dog story. The bicycle and the trip were the attractor, but it was the Leader Dog story that kept the Lions engaged. Our club members also got behind the effort. Gone were the days of only one member knowing about Leader Dog. We had all become informed and involved in sharing about Leader Dog.

Beyond our little corner of the Lions world, we also began to connect with Lions across the country as part of our route fine-tuning and event planning. With the help of the team at Leader Dog, we adjusted the route to align better with various clubs and puppy raiser groups that wanted to host me and/or create special Leader Dog fundraising events.

It was an incredible experience in the final few months before the actual ride began on June 16, 2012. It was so very exciting to see the energy grow from a simple idea that mixed dogs, passionate and motivated Leader Dog supporters, Lions, and of course… a crazy guy on a bicycle.  More with that part of the story in the next post!

Part 7 – Trip planning… down to the hour?

As most can imagine, riding a bicycle is a bit more challenging than traveling by car. Preparing to minimize potential issues, knowing where to get food/water, as well as determining where to sleep each night was the foundation of my planning. To do this well, I needed to know the terrain, consider wind and potential weather conditions, and understand the type/quality of the roads. No small task for sure!

Cycling for Leader Dogs pin with graphic of a bicycler with an American flag in the backgroundAs I approached the start of the trip, more and more clubs/groups wanted me to stop in their town. I did my best to include them into the itinerary and thought I was being bold to suggest a two- or three-day window when I could arrive in their community considering all the variables. When I sent out the initial trip schedule, hosts began to contact me needing an exact date because they needed to plan events. My reply to them was… “You realize I am traveling on a bicycle, solo, without any support vehicle… right?

Soon convinced that more specific dates were needed, I went back to the drawing board and created a schedule with exact dates for each event. Almost immediately, I started to get emails and calls wanting to know… “What time will I be arriving?”  Unfazed as they were by my previous reminder regarding the challenges of solo bicycle travel, I simply asked them what time they needed me to be there?

Thankfully, somehow, I was able to make every event across the country on time.  In hindsight, my very tight schedule was a blessing because knowing so many people were depending on me kept me going through the tough times.  If you want to read about my daily experiences of traveling by bicycle on this trip, please visit www.BigGuyOnABike.com.

Part 8: Leader Dog Campus on Bicycles  – “You only have 1,100 miles to go!”

Cycling for Leader Dog was a solo bicycle ride from Portland to Portland (Oregon to Maine).  Yet I had the pleasure of having several others ride along for a few miles here and there.  The exception was Lion Debbie who joined me in Green Bay and rode her bicycle with me to the Leader Dog campus. She completed more than 250 miles over four days.

Map of the U.S. with a line drawn across it showing Mark's biking routeDuring this time, Lion Debbie had a full-immersion Cycling for Leader Dogs experience. On the second day, we rode ninety miles, attended three events, and had a half-dozen media interactions (print, radio and TV). This day was not uncommon as the trip progressed.  All in all, there were over 100 media contacts and/or speaking events throughout the trip.

Riding into the Leader Dog parking lot, after traveling more than 2,400 miles on a bicycle, it struck me how our lives had changed since our first visit earlier in the year.  This really sunk in when Leader Dog’s Director of Marketing and Communication, Rachelle Kniffen, greeted me and said, “Congratulations Mark!  You only have 1,100 miles to go!”  Now that was the first time I had ever heard anyone say in the same sentence the words “only” and “1,100 miles” when referring to traveling by bicycle.

What once seemed like an impossible journey to some (3,500 miles on a bicycle across America), now had become a forgone conclusion.  In the final two posts of the day, I will share how those 1,100 miles turned out to be just the beginning of the journey. It’s amazing how perceptions can change (including our own) if we simply jump on and start peddling!

Part 9: The road angel that helped me get through a long tough day

Those 1,100 miles from Leader Dog to Portland, Maine took two long hard weeks. They were some of the hardest miles of the trip. Waiting to greet me was Lion Debbie, along with Lion Mike Dengate (my Leader Dog liaison), his wife Lion Judy along with their granddaughter. I was expected to arrive in Portland the morning of August 6, but something happened on August 5 that I will never forget.

Mark stands with a group of people at an outdoor pavilion. Mark's bicycle is in front of themNearing mid-afternoon and losing energy rapidly, I came upon a man I would come to know as Bernard. He asked me what I was doing. We quickly started a conversation that was more like two friends talking even though I just met him. As I explained the trip and about Leader Dog, he began to laugh. This was not a laugh you hear after a joke, but rather one that comes from the joy of Christmas day.

Bernard went on to introduce me to his family and they were so moved by the Leader Dog story they insisted I pass along a donation. They also filled my water bottles and gave me food, but they gave me so much more. I was so moved by Barnard and his family that I decided that I was going to ride all night if I had to so I could be with my Leader Dog family.

To this day, I remember how Bernard made me feel and how it motivated me. Leader Dog and the work we do together gives me the same feeling. It is amazing how going on this long bicycle ride set a new course in my life. A glimpse into the changes I never imagined will be my final post of the day.

Part 10 – Leader Dog and the bigger Lions world

As shared previously, prior to being welcomed into the Leader Dog community with the “Hey I am Lion Mark and I want to ride a bicycle across America for Leader Dog” email, Lion Debbie and I only knew Lions within our own club. Leader Dogs for the Blind opened our world, both within Lions and personally.

Following the completion of Cycling for Leader Dogs, we were invited to go to the USA/Canada Lions Leadership Forum in Tampa, Florida and be recognized by then-International President Wayne Madden. We had never heard of the Forum until then. We have been to eight other Forums since, been presenters and moderators at many, worked on the host committee, and now on the planning committee.

Mark stands with a group of people outside of a building with a banner on it that reads Bluffton Community Center. Mark's bicycle with its trailer is in front of themOur Leader Dog experiences also encouraged us to go on in leadership. We have served in numerous positions at the district and multiple district levels. I also served as District Governor in 2018-2019 and Debbie will be serving as District Governor in 2022–2023. Neither of us had any desire to go outside of the club prior to Cycling for Leader Dogs.

Finally, and most importantly, we would have never met so many wonderful Lions and Leader Dog supporters without the Cycling for Leader Dogs ride. We simply cannot name all the terrific people we’ve met but know that we are so thankful for having the opportunity to be in the Leader Dog community with you. Many are still going strong while others have passed on, with their spirit and stories living on within us.

In closing, we want to again share a saying that is so true—Leader Dogs for the Blind positively changes lives of people, regardless of whether blind, visually impaired, or… fully sighted people like us. Thank you, Leader Dog community, for believing in us!

Lions Dr. Mark and Debbie Mansell

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