An Early Routine
It’s 6 o’clock in the morning, and Brendan McDonald, a student at Rochester Institute of Technology, is already awake. He packs his duffel bag and eats a quick breakfast before meeting up with the rest of his crew. Throwing his duffel into the back of a trailer, he circles up with the group for a quick meeting. The team manager issues a short brief on the day’s agenda, a few words of motivation are offered, and the riders set off eastward, one more leg on their journey to the Capitol.
This was the daily routine of Brendan and nearly 100 other college students this past summer, participating in the 30th annual ‘Journey of Hope’ campaign. Organized by The Ability Experience, the Journey of Hope is a coast-to-coast bike ride with the mission “to spread acceptance and understanding for people with disabilities.” Over a period of just two months, the crew tackled an average of 75 miles per day, covering nearly 3,700 miles total.
Service Beyond Self
As exhausting as two months of back-to-back Gran Fondos may seem, the riders’ days didn’t just end with cycling, however. Of the 60 days spent out on the road, the crew concluded 42 of their rides with a Friendship Visit, spending time with people with disabilities in communities across the country. Visits included wheelchair basketball, bowling, and simply ‘hanging out’ with new acquaintances. These visits gave the riders a personal connection with the people they aimed to serve.
“Many of them are the happiest people I’ve ever met.”
One of the defining issues facing people with disabilities is public misinformation regarding their abilities and experience of life. When asked about the people he spent time visiting over the summer, Brendan remarked that, “Many of them are the happiest people I’ve ever met.”
‘”People with disabilities can be just as happy as you or I,” Brendan says, reflecting on how happiness can be a benchmark for a life well-lived. We all have limitations, it’s how you confront those limitations that determines your well-being.
Inspiring a Future of Leaders
The Ability Experience is the philanthropic arm of Pi Kappa Phi, a fraternity founded in 1904, who’s focus is creating lifelong servant leaders who impact the world in a positive way. They set themselves apart from the popular perception of ‘frat culture’ by redefining what fraternities are all about.
“We are out here helping people”, says Brendan. “We actually put our leadership into practice.” It’s an action-based mindset that has allowed the organization to raise over $15 million since its inception, benefitting a countless number of people with disabilities.
In addition to their time spent raising awareness and hanging out in communities of people with disabilities, the Journey of Hope was able to raise an astonishing $730,000 toward grants and other community projects. It’s an impressive figure, and with almost all of that money going directly into community grants, it’s sure to have a lasting impact on many of the communities Brendan visited, improving lives for years to come.
A Literal Cross-Country Tour
The Journey of Hope team has strong support from a number of businesses, including Mountain Khakis, Honey Stinger, Gatorade, and The Walton Group, each providing unique product and financial support. Aside from these sponsors, however, the program requires riders to support themselves with parts and equipment for the journey. Brendan completed the entire tour on a stock Specialized Diverge, and managed to roll on the same tires and tubes for all 3700 miles–no flats!
The route began in Los Angeles, passing through Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, before crossing the Mississippi. “I can’t say I have a favorite state,” said Brendan, but I’d never seen a true desert before, so parts of Arizona and New Mexico were pretty cool.”
Brendan’s was one of three routes the Journey of Hope took, with each of them converging at the Capitol building in Washington D.C. in August. There, they celebrated the summer’s efforts and accomplishments while reflecting on their time with communities across America. The journey clearly impacts the team just as much as it does the folks they set out to serve.
Once a Cyclist, Always a Cyclist
Although this was Brendan’s first ‘extended’ experience with cycling, it doesn’t seem as though it will be his last. His training has continued after the tour, and he already has sights set on a few upcoming races.
One of the concepts that stuck with Brendan during the Journey of Hope is that, “people with disabilities can’t just get rid of their disability.” He considers it a, “powerful motivator to make the most of your life”, regardless of the situation. It’s clear that this sort of motivation helped to propel the team forward on some of the more difficult days.
Brendan and the rest of the Journey of Hope crew will return to their studies this fall, and will continue to practice servant leadership in their schools and local community. Although the cross-country tour will have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most, their work will continue to resonate in communities across the country.