I returned home to Saint Paul on October 27 following a 56-day, 1,700-mile trip down the Mississippi River on a homemade raft christened the S.S. Hail Mary. As the executive director of Spare Key, my journey was a desperate attempt to keep the Saint Paul-based nonprofit organization afloat during a global pandemic.

The trip was monumental for Spare Key and for me. In those two months, Spare Key became registered in all 50 United States, greatly enhancing its ability to give families the financial support they need to pay major bills when faced with a critical illness or serious injury. Meanwhile, I realized that the relationships I built, the lessons I learned and the memories I made will keep Spare Key going for years to come.

On the trip, I shared Spare Key’s mission with countless incredible individuals. I am certain that we will be able to help more families during difficult times because of this journey.

riverboat
Spare Key executive director Erich Mische and his homemade raft took a break in Kimmswick, Missouri, midway on their 1,700-mile trip down the Mississippi River to raise money for the nonprofit organization.

Spare Key’s mission is to help as many families as possible. Founded in Minnesota in 1997, it has served more than 4,000 families with nearly $4 million in housing and housing-related expenses, so that in difficult times they can focus on what truly matters—their loved ones. At my last stop in Baton Rouge, I registered Louisiana as the 50th state where Spare Key can operate.

During the journey, I encountered countless mishaps and challenges. Operating a 50-year-old pontoon with finicky motors and an attached garden shed as a shelter comes with challenges. Add to that the never-ending river traffic, the occasional lock and dam and Hurricane Delta, and there was no way to predict the challenges I encountered.

I can be afraid of the dark and scared of wild animals, but for two months I lived, worked and slept on a raft as I navigated the mighty Mississippi, drifting slowly through the middle of America, spreading the word about Spare Key’s commitment to helping families.

During the journey, I encountered countless mishaps and challenges. Operating a 50-year-old pontoon with finicky motors and an attached garden shed as a shelter comes with challenges. Add to that the never-ending river traffic, the occasional lock and dam and Hurricane Delta, and there was no way to predict the challenges I encountered.

I learned quickly how to navigate the river when you are operating the smallest boat on it. I never thought I would learn how to pump water out of 50-year old pontoon tubes, jimmy-rig a pontoon motor, traverse locks and dams alongside massive river barges or avoid the worst that a hurricane can throw at you, but I sure do now.

What started out as a way to keep Spare Key afloat became so much more. On the journey, I built lasting relationships and learned important lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I discovered that every person is fighting his or her own battle. Even if they do not directly need the help of Spare Key, I want people to see that there is always hope during difficult times. The people I met along the way have made a lasting impression on my life. I hope I was able to do the same for them.

Spare Key, like thousands of other nonprofits, has been severely affected by the damage COVID-19 has done to the economy. Every fundraising event we scheduled for this summer except one had to be cancelled or postponed. The journey down the Mississippi was my way of ensuring that the work of Spare Key continues.

People who would like to support Spare Key’s efforts to help families in need may do so by visiting its website at sparekey.org/donate.

— Erich Mische

Erich Mische is a former resident of Macalester-Groveland.

COMMENTS TERMS OF SERVICE

The Villager welcomes comments from readers. Please include your full name and the neighborhood in which you live. Be respectful of others and stay on topic. We reserve the right to remove any comment we deem to be profane, rude, insulting or hateful. Comments will be reviewed before being published.