by Michelle Tremblay | photos by Zeena Gregg Photography

Joanna Jaroszewska is last to finish the race. She is in the back of the line – the caboose. And, as surprising as it may sound, she is exactly where she wants to be.

For the past three years, Joanna, who is currently a senior at Westview High School, has been riding as a volunteer for “Race Across California” – a local program that involves 5th graders in a week long bike ride from the Arizona/California border to the Pacific Ocean. Nicknamed “Caboose,” Joanna plans to volunteer again this April – once again taking her place at the back of the group. “Every day I volunteer as the ‘Caboose,’ riding behind the very last kid,” said Joanna. “Back here there are tears and pressure to get to lunch on time. Back here there are no friends to race; you race the sun, struggling to make it to dinner before it sets. Back here it’s an internal race.”

Although Joanna admits that the physical challenges of the race are quite grueling – the heat, the wind, and the early mornings – she finds that it is all worth it to see the kids improve. “I love seeing the kids end the day on a good note with their parents thinking that the next day will be better,” said Joanna. “It’s extremely rewarding when I ride with a kid for a few days helping to push them mentally and physically, and then not see them for the rest of the ride. It sounds bad, but the fact that they made it out from the back of the pack makes me proud.”

She certainly has something to be proud of. Whether she’s using treats, words of encouragement, or belting out some well-known Beatles song, she always finds a way to inspire the kids to keep riding.

Perhaps it’s because she enjoys the challenge of pushing herself, but more likely it’s Joanna’s big heart that keeps her coming back for more. “I go there to help push the fifth graders,” said Joanna. “Now that I’ve ‘ridden across California,’ every time I do it again I’m really just there to help the riders believe that they can do it too.”