Philanthropic students bike the South

Michelle Kibiger

University graduate Randy Stillinger spent the Fourth of July in Roswell, New Mexico. The “UFO Capital of the World” did not disappoint him, and he has the evidence to prove it. The pictures of what he calls “Star Trek wanna-bes” are among hundreds in his photo album.
On his summer vacation, Stillinger traveled round trip from San Francisco to Washington, D.C.
The first leg of the trip lasted from June 9 to Aug. 10. Stillinger, a member of Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, was one of 55 members who bicycled across the country to raise money for disabled kids.
Stillinger’s route took him through the southern United States, where he and his traveling companions marvelled at the canyons, the weather, the people they met and their own ability to make it through each grueling day.
But what he brought back with him are the memories — of a child’s smile, the small-town festivals, the games, the late-night shenanigans, the impoverished shanty towns and the friendships.
Throughout the year, Pi Kappa Phi works on several philanthropic projects, which include building adaptable playground equipment for disabled children. Each year, PUSH America, the fund-raising arm of the fraternity, sponsors the Journey of Hope bicycle ride to raise money for the projects and to give members an opportunity to see both their handiwork and the children their works affect.
“It was a blast,” Stillinger said about the trip. “Definitely something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Along the way, the riders slept in churches, camped at the bottom of a canyon, ate at church potlucks, played wheelchair basketball, danced with residents of a state school and got a taste of the culture of 10 southern states.
“It’s definitely a different culture down there,” Stillinger said.
The two dozen cyclists, dressed in helmets and spandex, expected to attract attention everywhere they went, and they did.
“Kids would be waiting out on the road for us,” Stillinger said. He said the riders would stop and talk to them, explaining what they were doing. Some of the kids asked for autographs.
In many of the towns in which the riders stopped, they had scheduled appearances at local group homes, hospitals and camps for people with mild to severe handicaps.
“I didn’t know how I would handle the different disabilities,” Stillinger said. “It took us a while to get used to dealing with them.”
But the smiles of the children helped clear up their apprehension, Stillinger said.
The kids kept asking the riders when they were coming back, Stillinger said, and it was hard to explain to them that we were just passing through.
“They motivated us to say, ‘What do I have to complain about?'” he said. “Some of these people will never be able to do what we’re doing.”
Much of small-town America allowed the riders to just join right in and make themselves at home. Just outside of Roswell, they joined in with the townsfolk’s late Fourth of July celebration. “We did the wooden horse race, the three-legged and potato-sack races and the egg toss,” Stillinger said.
Topping the day off were the frying-pan toss and the turtle races. “Once again, small-town America turned on its special warmth,” he said.
Cyclists were reminded how dangerous the country highways can be while they were riding through Texas five days later. Two young girls side-swiped one group of four cyclists, three of whom were taken to the hospital for treatment.
Stillinger even had a brush with Arkansas “rednecks” when he was riding alone one day. He said a car passed him and threw a can of root beer at him. It barely missed him, exploding against a concrete barrier.
“I got a nice impression of the Arkansas rednecks,” Stillinger wrote in his journal. “Really nice people down here.”
Police escorts were common throughout the trip to ensure the riders’ safety. But as the riders were leaving Louisiana, they were actually pulled over by a county sheriff who admonished them that they were driving on the wrong side of the road.
“He told us to ride on the opposite side of the road,” Stillinger wrote in his journal, “so we could see the oncoming traffic.” One of the riders in the group tried to reason with the officer, but after a while they crossed the street until he was out of sight, and then they had a good laugh.
“We could hardly wait to leave the county, and ultimately the state,” Stillinger wrote in his journal.
Long periods of riding gave the cyclists time to reflect upon the things they were experiencing. Stillinger said that he saw large populations of impoverished people in states like Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina.
“It’s a little sad when that’s the majority of the population,” Stillinger said.
He also said he thought about the disabled children and what they had to look forward to in their lives. He said that the plights of those with especially severe disabilities really touched him.
“One of the things that hit me,” Stillinger wrote in his journal, “as we lay down trying to go to sleep is the sadness that surrounds (the severely disabled) peoples’ lives. I assume that a lot of these people at this institution have been basically given up by their family members. … While these are very nice people that staff this ‘school,’ it is not home. I feel very grateful tonight about who I am.”
Stillinger said that being part of Pi Kappa Phi is a privilege for him, something that fills him with tremendous pride. “It was, however, only the beginning of the work that was ahead,” he wrote. “It’s what you do with this privilege that counts in the end.”