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Trailing for a good cause: Trails4Transplants rides for organ donations awareness

Press Photo by Nadya Faulx Trails4Transplants co-founder Ashley Peterson pets a tired horse on a stop-over in Dickinson Thursday. The organization was in town on its 18-day trip across the Upper Midwest to raise awareness of organ donation.1 / 2
Press Photo by Nadya Faulx Trails4Transplants rider Julie Kilgore and her horse take a break Thursday in Dickinson from their 444-mile trek to the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana.2 / 2

Ashley Peterson and Roger Hille bonded over their shared love of horses years ago in Minnesota.

But the two “horse friends,” as Peterson calls themselves, share an even deeper connection.

Hille’s son-in-law received a liver transplant 15 years ago. Peterson’s brother, Blake, was an organ donor whose heart, liver, pancreas and kidneys went to four recipients after he died in an accident in 2000; he was the 19th donor in North Dakota in that year.

When Hille told Peterson he wanted to ride from Warren, Minn., to his ranch in St. Anthony, the two figured it should be for a cause close to both of them — and Trails4Transplants was born.

The organization is in its first few days of a 444-mile trip to raise awareness of organ, eye and tissue donation across the Upper Midwest, its second trek after last year’s inaugural ride. More than twenty riders and their horses passed through Dickinson Thursday on their way along Gen. George Custer’s Trail to the Little Bighorn Battlefield near Hardin, Mont.

The group — along with a sizeable support team of drivers, handymen and trail scouts — left Fort Lincoln near Mandan on June 1, and will hit their destination on June 18. They’re reaching out to communities along the way to share their message and encourage residents to register as organ donors.

“It’s expanded beyond just a ride,” Peterson said. “It’s become an epic journey.”

This year’s riders have come from as far away as Texas and Ontario to support the Trails 4 Transplant mission.

Rider and self-proclaimed “horse nut” Sierra Dyrdal, from Thief River Falls, Minn., said she gave her two weeks’ notice at her accounting job in order to make the trip.

“It was a risky move, but I probably would have regretted it if I didn’t take advantage of this opportunity,” she said.

Dyrdal said she has known Hille for a while and became “emotionally invested” in the cause, despite not having a personal connection to it before getting involved.

As many as 3,500 people in the Upper Midwest are on the transplant wait list, according to the Minnesota non-profit LifeSource; more than 120,000 are waiting for transplants across the country.

Peterson said a lot of fear and misunderstanding still surround organ donations.

“People are so grief-stricken by the loss of a loved one,” she said, adding the donation seems like it will take more from them than death already has.

She said people are becoming more aware of the impact of organ donation — just one donor can affect 60 lives — but it’s still a worthy cause that many people don’t know about.

Second-time rider Julie Kilgore said she hadn’t thought about organ donations until she joined Trails4Transplants on their trip last year.

“It’s not that I didn’t care; I just didn’t have any idea about it,” she said.

Many riders are families of donors or recipients, and Kilgore said that hearing their stories, as well as talking to Peterson and Hille, impacted my life a lot.

“I’ll never forget it,” she said.

Riders can tag along on whichever legs of the trip if they want to join, but Kilgore said she hopes to make the entire journey to Montana.

This year’s trip is just the second of six rides planned over the coming years — totalling 2,000 miles across North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota and Minnesota — ending at the Gift of Life House for transplant recipients near the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

All donations raised during the trip — from riders, sponsors, and community members Trails4Transplants meets along the way — go to the Gift of Life House. The group raised more than $40,000 last year, and Peterson said she hopes to top that this summer.

More than funds, though, the group aims to raise the number of registered organ donors, first in the Upper Midwest, and someday, nationally, Peterson said.