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Nonprofit Makes Trip Down Mississippi River On A Raft To Raise Funds, Awareness

Liam Niemeyer

  Erich Mische isn’t used to being on the water. He has his makeshift boat — a garden shed from Home Depot built on top of a 52-year-old pontoon frame —tied up to the dock for the river ferry just outside of Hickman, Kentucky, next to the Mississippi River. 


He’s put his trust in listening to the tugboat captains and others on the river to get him to this point, having started his journey down the river in St. Paul, Minnesota, back in August.


“I don’t know anything about boating. I’m afraid of the dark. I don’t like wild animals,” said Mische. “More than anything else, what I’ve learned is that if you truly, truly, truly do not respect this river and the people who work on it, you’re going to find yourself in a really bad place.” 


But he’s not traveling down the river because of any dream or whim of his. He leads the nonprofit Spare Key, which helps families nationwide struggling with medical emergencies to pay for other expenses like mortgages, car payments, and in worse-case scenarios, funeral arrangements. Spare Key became a registered organization in Kentucky last year, and he plans to finish his journey in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to register his nonprofit in that state, also.


His organization’s private fundraising was significantly impacted with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, and he came up with the idea to help with fundraising while biking along the Mississippi River in Minnesota. The boat’s name reflects the situation for the 23-year-old nonprofit. 


“We call it the S.S. Hail Mary, which kind of underscores the desperate attempt here to do what we can to try to raise money to try and raise awareness and to keep this nonprofit going,” Mische said. 


Mische said the COVID-19 pandemic has put a particular emphasis on Spare Key’s work, with the organization helping families directly impacted by the virus and those indirectly impacted, like someone who may have lost their job during the pandemic and had a subsequent medical emergency.  


He’s calling the trip “Hope on the River,” and he hopes documenting, live-streaming, and telling his story can inspire people to donate to Spare Key. The phrase “Hope on the River” has meaning, too. 


“You can look at the Mississippi River as this body of water that divides us as a country. Or you can look at it for what it has been and what it is, which is a river that brings us together,” Mische said. “We gather at this river to work, to create jobs, to feed the world. And it has been giving hope to millions of people for more years than any of us can imagine.”


Credit Liam Niemeyer / WKMS
Mische showing the inside of his raft.

  His trip hasn’t been easy or perfect. He’s had to learn how to dodge tugboats pushing massive barges through whistle signals (three whistles to reverse engine, five whistles for imminent danger), and at one point had his boat listing into the water from pontoon leaks. 


Strangers have helped Mische each step of the way, offering food, help with swamped engines and places to stay. Mementos of his trip are seen around his improvised cabin with drink koozies from Iowa, and he also has a few reminders of home. He sports a pink baseball cap depicting a robot wearing a ribbon, in honor of his daughter’s all-girl robotics team. 


With this trip, he also hopes he can tell his story of Americans helping other Americans during a year of hardship and political divisiveness. Mische spent decades working in government and politics, at one point as chief of staff for former Republican U.S. Senator Norm Coleman. 


Yet he said when people helped him with his boat problems, they didn’t view him as a Republican or a Democrat.


“I think we all have an obligation to do what we can to help one another. I think when I get to the end of this trip that my belief in this country and the people in it will only be strengthened,” Mische said. “They don’t ask me what party I belong to. They don’t ask me who I’m going to vote for President...what they ask me is, ‘Do you need some help?’”


More about his trip including a livestream can be found at


"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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