Experience the joy of summer with me … If you are still in school, you’ll know just what I mean. If your school days are over, reach back in your memory to the sun-filled days of freedom and adventure.
For many students, summer means outdoor fun with friends and maybe a job or a family vacation. It means relaxing and regrouping. But I know a group of fraternity members from Pi Kappa Phi who turn summer into an amazing experience filled with kindness and generosity, and bikes and dancing too.
Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity is huge on service; in fact, they have their own nonprofit called The Ability Experience focused on creating servant leaders.
When Bruce Rogers was in college, he joined Pi Kappa Phi and became passionate about what The Ability Experience was doing for people with disabilities. In 1987, he decided to do a solo bike ride across America to bring awareness to this inspiring program.
The next year, 20 riders in Pi Kappa Phi formed a team to do the ride across the country. Even before the internet and its ability to send thoughts around the world at the speed of light, I guess acts of kindness somehow found a way of catching on.
Now, 30 years later, there are three teams with about 90 cyclists total, and the ride is called the Journey of Hope. Each rider raises money for their trip as well as money for donations to organizations supporting people with disabilities. They start from the West Coast at three locations – San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle, and all end up in Washington D.C. for a celebration.
One rider, Nikolas Merten from the University of Illinois, said his motivation was to make a large scale difference that many people his age don’t have the opportunity to do.
Rider Joshua Hunter from Iona College added, “I believe this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something for those who deserve it.”
Each team stops for friendship visits along the way. The purpose of the visit is to create connections and have some fun interactions, such as bowling, swimming, or a BBQ.
In Denver, the event is called Pedal for Pennies and the riders join local Special Olympic athletes for a cycling event followed by a dinner and a dance. There are about 120 to 150 of these incredible stops each summer!
This journey has been life-changing for Bruce. He met his wife through it and got married in 1993. Their three children have grown up spending each summer involved with the Journey of Hope.
“All of us are better people because of it,” he said.
Bruce was on the Board of Directors of The Ability Experience for nine years. Now he is on the safety committee for the Journey of Hope and his firm, Mountaingate Capital, sponsors the Denver friendship visit and the Journey of Hope. He still rides five to seven days with the teams each summer.
I caught up with the team in Denver during their friendship visit, and let me tell you, we had a blast. It started out with a bike ride in City Park where each Special Olympic athlete was paired with one of the cross country riders, while another member of the team counted laps. After that, there was a BBQ, speakers and a dance. You can be yourself and don’t need to impress anybody. They share their joy and positive nature and make everyone feel welcome. Both the riders and the Special Olympic athletes leave feeling encouraged. Both value the human connection that was established.
Let’s hear what some of the riders have to say:
Brandon Walker from California State University Long Beach said his favorite experience was seeing a father cry when his son joined in a limbo dance. This father had never seen his shy son get involved in a group like this.
Another student, Jack Venuto from the University of Colorado Boulder, said he found the experience unique and heartwarming and that it has brought his family closer through fundraising together.
Three riders from Virginia Tech – Jason Wojci, Jim Doherty, and Jared Levin also shared what they enjoyed about the experience.
Jason said his motivation was to spend time with people with different abilities. “Smiles before miles” is the motto, meaning while the biking is important, it is even more important to spend time with those they meet at the visits.
Jim added that the ride is an immense opportunity for personal growth and that each of us can impact each other’s lives.
Jared concurred stating, “It’s amazing to see the difference one person can make.”
The Journey of Hope is meaningful to all who participate and meets the universal need to be accepted.
If you want to learn more about The Ability Experience and the Journey of Hope check out this website: http://abilityexperience.org/programs/
Another way to be involved is to follow the team on their Facebook page and encourage them as they ride across the nation.