Business, churches, and schools have all been hit hard by COVID-19. So have nonprofit organizations, so one Twin Cities group has a unique plan to draw attention to their efforts to help families that suffer unexpected medical expenses.

Erich Mische, executive director of Spare Key, will leave St. Paul on Aug. 27 and float 1,700 miles in a raft to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, stopping along the way to promote the work of his organization and that of nonprofit organizations in general. His journey is called Hope on the River.

“Spare Key has had its teeth kicked in as a result of the impact of COVID-19," Mische said. “Every single one of our events has either been canceled or postponed for this year. The impact has been three-quarters of a million dollars, or half of our 2020 budget.”

Erich Miche’s raft is a wooden house built on the base of a pontoon boat. He will have a motor to move him through Mississippi River locks and dams and to avoid dangerous situations. Photo courtesy of Erich Mische
Erich Miche’s raft is a wooden house built on the base of a pontoon boat. He will have a motor to move him through Mississippi River locks and dams and to avoid dangerous situations. Photo courtesy of Erich Mische

Mische said that individual donations are down 90% and corporate and foundation giving has dropped dramatically. He was thinking hard about what he could do to help Spare Key stay open and continue to help families with medical emergencies.

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On June 16, his birthday, he was riding his bicycle in South St. Paul along the Mississippi River and had an idea that he could ride his bike along the river from the Twin Cities to the Gulf of Mexico.

“I thought, one, that sounds like a lot of work, and two, I didn’t know how I could keep people interested in that,” Mische said. “My next idea was to go down the river in a canoe or kayak, but it occurred to me that I don’t know how to do either one of those. Finally, I wondered if I could get a raft and float down the river and turn it into a fundraiser.”

Mische expects to spend two months on the raft, which is a small wooden house built on the base of a pontoon boat. He will have a motor on back to move him through locks and dams and get him out of the way of barges and other hazards. A small motor on front will help keep him off rocks and in the navigation channel.

“The primary means of travel is drifting,” he said. “I’ll be using a push pole to keep me off the river bank and in the middle of the river.”

He will drift through each day and find a marina or other place to tie up during the night. He said many people have already contacted him and offered a place to dock and help with a hot shower and good meal as he moves down the river.

“I am afraid of the dark,” Mische admitted. “I am scared of animals. You couldn’t find somebody who is less prepared to confront the elements in that respect. If I think about it too much, it terrifies me, so I try to keep my mind occupied with all the stuff that I’ve got to do to get ready to go."

Learn along with him

Mische wants to share his adventure with schoolchildren, especially now that many are involved in distance learning. Each weekday, he will record a one-hour program about science and technology as well as his life on the raft which he has christened the S.S. Hail Mary. He will upload the programs to the website hopeontheriver.com so that teachers can use them in their lessons. The website will also have a map showing Mische’s progress down the river.

Spare Key has expanded under the leadership of Mische, according to Red Wing resident Cindy Taube, who has been a volunteer for more than 10 years. She said the organization will help families with any type of illness and from any financial background. Families who receive money are able to choose how they spend it to help with rent, mortgage, gas, food, or whatever they need the most.

Miche will launch his raft, the S.S. Hail Mary, from St. Paul on August 27, 2020. Photo courtesy of Erich Mische
Miche will launch his raft, the S.S. Hail Mary, from St. Paul on August 27, 2020. Photo courtesy of Erich Mische

Taube said she is working to help include Mike Wilson and the Red Wing Marine Museum in Mische’s plans.

"Mike and his knowledge of the river can help Erich with things he needs to know about the river,” Taube said.

Taube said she is impressed with Mische’s dedication to Spare Key and the Hope on the River project.

“Erich is getting on this raft and two months of his life is committed to going down the Mississippi River, connecting with families and organizations along the way,” Taube said. “He’ll let people know not only about Spare Key, but about the importance of supporting nonprofits and the dire need of help they have at this time.”

Mische will hold a public launch of the S.S. Hail Mary at 10 a.m. Aug. 27 at 10 a.m. at Padelford Riverboats on Harriet Island in St. Paul. Anyone wishing to attend can register on the website.

“I’ve been involved with a lot of nonprofits, and what makes Spare Key stand out is Erich’s commitment to providing for families to help them bounce but not break,” Taube said, using the organization’s motto. “I don’t know anyone else who would take two months out of their life during a pandemic to raise awareness for nonprofits.”