Matt Barthelemy isn’t letting anything get in the way of his celebration of spring, even spring’s absence.

Two years ago, 33-year-old Barthelemy, a gregarious people-person with a penchant for western shirts, decided that the first day of spring would be his springboard to better habits. On March 21, he would give up smoking, drinking and caffeine, and he’d exercise regularly. But not forever. He’d do it for one month, just enough time to know what it feels like.

On April 21, 2011, Barthelemy felt “awesome.”

Then, like most of us, he slipped back into a few bad habits. But word of his effort spread and, on March 21, 2012, Barthelemy had 60 “buds”(or buddies) signed up for year two of his experiment in healthier living. This year’s effort, which ends Sunday, boasts 150 participants of all ages, most of them feeling loads better despite the unseasonable chill outside.

“People are definitely struggling this year,” he said, “but we’re also energized that we’re going to get through this.”

Barthelemy has long been a font of community-focused ventures, including a recent ping-pong tournament with 72 participants. For 10 years, he’s organized salons, or “presentation nights,” in which he invites friends into his small Whittier apartment to share whatever they want. A chef cooked a meal. Another spoke about the legacy of Paul Wellstone. A DNR expert taught the group about dragonflies. A locksmith explained his work.

“I love the idea of people taking off their shoes and leaving their egos at the door,” Barthelemy said.

Even his 93-year-old grandmother jumped in. She talked about emigrating in 1928 from Slovenia to the United States and eating a banana for the first time. Not knowing she was supposed to peel it, she took a bite, skin and all. “It was one of the most powerful presentations we had,” he said.

As proud as he is of coaxing people onto comfortable couches for stimulating conversations, he’s equally proud of how many buddies he’s gotten off the couch. Buds of Spring is a nod to community, but also to fresh possibilities. Jan. 1 didn’t speak to him in quite the same way.

“Dead of winter. Missed that deadline.”

Barthelemy grew up in Apple Valley and attended Rosemount High School, playing baritone saxophone in a ska band, the Jinkies. The band headlined at First Avenue, “an exciting thing for a suburban kid.”

During his sophomore year at the University of Minnesota, he took a break and traveled to China where he found work teaching English, among other jobs. He thought he’d stay six months. He stayed three years, returning home to graduate from the U with a degree in public relations in 2008.

He now works as the front guy at Common Roots, a cafe in Minneapolis, where a growing number of fellow employees are becoming buds.

Part of his desire to begin the effort, he said candidly, was his awareness of alcoholism in his family, “and my desire to prove to myself that I didn’t need it in my life.”

He gave up caffeine, alcohol and smoking cold-turkey, suffering headaches and lethargy. He pushed himself to start jogging anyway and, by week three, “I was feeling awesome,” he said.

Support from friends wasn’t always forthcoming. Some pushed back when he told them he’d go out, but not to drink. “People would get defensive, but I just wanted to hang out and have a good time.”

Soon, many of those friends had signed up for Buds of Spring, from as far away as Japan and India.

Since 2012, 13 participants have quit smoking. Barthelemy drinks less alcohol now than he used to, and has given up caffeine for good. He’s taking long walks, too, and paying attention to his food choices. “The perspective you get from just trying this new lifestyle,” Barthelemy said. “I totally rethought how I consume.”

Justina Cegelski, 27, has been a bud for two years. She gave up drinking for a month, after being introduced to Barthelemy at Common Roots.

“I couldn’t think of a good reason not to do it,” said Cegelski, a design studio specialist at Pottery Barn Teen. “It was weird. If I hadn’t run into him, I don’t think I could have done it.”

But she did it successfully, even though her friends brew beer and even through a family reunion. “By the last week, it’s kind of a breeze,” she said, adding that she’s a much lighter drinker now.

Barthelemy’s Facebook page offers support from “Hang in there!” to “Try this herbal tea,” to “Stretch in the morning.” His cheery website (budsofspring.org) gives shoutouts to “Buds of the Day” and their hobbies.

Barthelemy also gets participants together for activities like roller-skating or museum visits, fun stuff where there’s no pressure to smoke or drink. On Saturday, they’ll join in a Whittier neighborhood cleanup to honor Earth Day, followed by a bike ride finale on Sunday.

He’s already thinking about how to add to the group and increase sponsorships in 2014. He’s particularly proud of Peace Coffee’s Buds of Spring label.

Decaf.

 

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

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