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Cyclists pedal hope on cross-country trek

By Shannon Watkins

The Farmville Herald

A fellow cyclist joked he had never seen Rohit Naidu move faster than when the Journey of Hope rider grabbed his bike to line up for a photo after the riders made their way into Farmville Tuesday, Aug. 10.

The ride to Farmville’s Holiday Inn Express completed the 55th day of a 59-day campaign.

The parking lot of the Farmville Holiday Inn Express was the site of much good-natured joshing like this between bites of sandwiches and bike maintenance routines. Cyclists celebrated their accomplishment by shucking off shoes with pedal clips in favor of Birkenstocks, sneakers or just bare feet.

Nineteen cyclists, along with six support staff, hit the town for their rest stop Tuesday. All are members of the Pi Kappa Phi social fraternity, from chapters across the country, riding for the Ability Experience, the fraternity’s charity. The first Journey of Hope ride took place in 1987.

“We start in Santa Barbara, California, and end in D.C., and it’s to raise money and awareness for disabilities and disability organizations,” Project Manager Jaime Jimenez said.

Jimenez and his crew of six keep bikes rolling smoothly for the 19 riders, setting up stations every 10 miles with water, snacks and bike pumps and making sure their last lodging is cleaned up and the next one is ready to take them. They also wake up half an hour before the riders do. Tuesday, the wake-up came at 5 a.m. — to get ready for the day and get everyone to the start site.

Some, like Peter Kowalski, have additional duties under titles like team historian.

“I’m team historian, so I contact all the media, I collect news articles, I take pictures,” he says. “This is my first. I’m enjoying it so far. I might actually want to ride this next year.”

This is the south team, which has raised about $150,000. Combined with other teams, the Ability Experience overall has raised roughly $350,000.

“We don’t have a disability that we focus on,” Jimenez said between groups of cyclists arriving. “It’s any intellectual, physical disability, any. Certain organizations will specialize in ones that we will visit. For instance, GiGi’s Playhouse specializes in people with Down’s Syndrome.

“They ( the cyclists) take on this challenge. We give up a summer, almost, to become servant-leaders and learn about the community and be able to take what we know to our chapters.”

There’s more than 10 states and colleges represented in the tour with riders  ages 18 to 22, but Jimenez said some teams in the past have had guys in their 50s and 60s.

“The oldest we’ve ever had was I think upper 70s,” he said.

Jimenez is an alumni member at 22, a graduate of Loyola University in New Orleans with a degree in journalism and environmental studies. Kowalski, 21, is still active at State University of New York – Brockport where he is studying computer information systems.

They’re basically the roadies to the rock stars who are the cyclists. They come whirling up to the hotel, all smiles and relaxed waves and lanky posture. All of them are made of muscle, which after 55 days of long-distance bike riding is to be expected. The optimistic glow of youth is very much present with them, and they’re all polite and helpful.

Ben Hardee, of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is a 22-year-old economics major. When the group cycled through High Point, North Carolina, his family and friends came out to say hello.

“Between graduation and starting work, I wanted to have something like an experience that was going to be rewarding and fulfilling, but I didn’t know what that was going to look like, and then this opportunity just kind of fell into my lap,” Herdee said.  “I’m serving a group that means a lot to me. I have two family members with special needs, a cousin and an aunt. Being around people like that all my life, it just really meant something to me.”

Logan Rogers is from Covington, Louisiana. The 22-years-old recently graduated from the University of Louisiana with a degree in biology.

He appears to be the most enthusiastic about the cause out of all the cyclists.

“I have three or four cousins with different disabilities, and I grew up taking care of them a little bit,” Rogers said. “Also, I volunteered in nursing homes a lot, taking care of people there with disabilities.”

He’s also worked in MedCamps of Louisiana while in college. The camps serve kids and adults with disabilities.

“I’ve always really enjoyed that,” he said. “So I thought a good way to raise awareness and give money for organizations like that would be to do this bike ride.”

Rohit Naidu, 19, of Naperville, Illinois, is an active member majoring in computer engineering at Purdue University.

“Our chapter (Omega) is just really big on this event. It’s a tradition that gets passed down,” he said of the decision to join. “So that’s why I’m here, to keep that tradition going. It just stuck with me. I wanted to do something meaningful this summer, and this was a great way to do that.”

He said he hasn’t had much experience working with the disabled, but feels it’s important.

“Out in the real world, we have to be able to work with and respect people with all different kinds of backgrounds and experiences,” he said.

They each wandered off to finish eating or just sit down to find shade on a 90-degree day.

Tuesday’s stay was sponsored by Lisa Harris of Helton House in Rice. After the rest, they’ll clean up, get their bikes and head off in the morning for Richmond.