Joe Yuhas was only 22 when he helped found Anchor House, the Trenton-based shelter for runaway, abused and neglected youths. He was a new Trenton councilman when some city residents approached him asking him to find a way to help some of the teens they encountered who were in trouble.
“Clearly there was a problem. Some teens were coming to places like the CYO and they were reporting to workers and volunteers that they were being abused at home,” he said. “There was no place to send them for help, no facility. That problem was the origin of the concept to create a shelter.”
The convent next to Sts. Peter and Paul Church on Centre Street had been vacant for a few years and was ideally suited for a shelter, he said, though the idea initially was not well received in the neighborhood because a shelter was viewed as a threat. But Anchor House eventually got the support it needed to open its doors and won over the community, and the organization was able to rent the space from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Trenton beginning in 1978.
There was just one problem. The new nonprofit had no money.
Six staff members worked at the shelter when it opened. They were not paid a salary the first two years, and worked in exchange for room and board.
“We were constantly focused on meeting our next payroll,” Yuhas said. “We were just trying to survive month to month and pay the bills.”
Yuhas and his niece were stuck in a traffic jam while they were on the way to an air show at McGuire Air Force Base when two people zipped by them on bicycles.
“I thought, to myself, hey, a bike ride is something we could do to raise money,” he said. “As dumb luck would have it, we happened to catch the cycling wave of the late 1970s — think “Breaking Away” and other cycling films that came out then — and the ride caught on.”
That first year, Yuhas and three other cyclists decided to ride 1,100 miles over 14 days, all the way from Florida to Trenton.
“We were young and stupid,” he said. “We didn’t know any better. Plus, Florida added to the mystique of the effort — biking from the edge of the continent was seen as a wild adventure.”
The four decided their route for the day each morning at a diner. They mapped out their daily plan on one of those restaurant placemats that has kids games on one side and a map on the other side.
“It was really primitive,” Yuhas said. “We had no support crew until year six or seven. As the years have gone by the ride as become very sophisticated in terms of organization.”
The ride was shortened to 500 miles over a week starting the next year so that more people could take time off of work and join in. Participation steadily grew. More than 220 people now ride or volunteer as support crew members each year, and the cyclists raise about $500,000 a year.
“The bike ride was the primary source of funding for Anchor House back then, and it still remains the primary source today,” Yuhas said, adding that he never imagined how Anchor House would grow and expand its programs over 35 years.
“Sadly, Anchor House has remained viable because there is such a need for it,” he said. “Back in the beginning we had no real idea about the magnitude of the problem. Abuse turned out to be a much bigger problem than we even realized. In the late 70s, the problem was under cover. It was not being talked about. We didn’t grasp all the problems kids had. But it didn’t take long to realize the scope of the problem and the value of the place. The doors opened and we were seeing 150 to 200 kids a year.”
Yuhas, who now lives in Arizona, was head of the Anchor House board of directors for 17 years, and has completed the Anchor House ride 18 years. He dreams of coming back to do a few more rides. Back in Trenton for the funeral of his father Joe B. Yuhas last week, he recalled how supportive of the effort his dad was.
“I grew up in that neighborhood and my dad was a parishioner at Sts. Peter and Paul. He helped build that church,” Yuhas said. “All my family members were big supporters from day one. My brother did the first ride with me. When my dad passed away, we asked people to make donations to Anchor House in lieu of flowers.”
Yuhas said from the beginning, the Anchor House Ride for Runaways has always been a family affair.
“It’s never been just about the cyclists who do the ride. Their families support them, and sacrifice time with their loved ones so they can train and go on the ride,” he said. “In large part, kids without anyone to turn to have Anchor House because families make it possible.”
This is the first in a daily series of articles about the 35th annual Anchor House Ride for Runaways. Reporter Krystal Knapp of PlanetPrinceton.com is a cyclist participating in the ride July 14-20. For more information about Anchor House or to make a donation, visit www.anchorhouseride.org, where you can also make online donations in a cyclist’s name. Donations can also be sent to the Anchor House Foundation, P.O. Box 2357, Trenton, NJ 08607-2357.