Special Populations welcomes Gear Up Florida cyclists
Almost 100 members of Special Populations, cheering and holding handmade signs, welcomed 21 bicyclists Monday afternoon at the Sun Splash Family Waterpark pavilion.
Nina Strickland organized the event for the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, which is part of the cycling group Gear Up Florida, which is organized by The Ability Experience. The group of cyclists raises awareness and funds for people with disabilities.
“I have a special needs daughter,” she said of her daughter Alexandra Blythe.
Strickland said her daughter loves going to Special Populations because of her friends who also attend the program. She said her daughter has the opportunity to participate in different activities that provide life skills.
“This is her life,” she said. “She can’t wait to come here.”
Last year the Pi Kappa Phi members stopped at Special Populations for the first time during their Gear Up Florida cycling trek. The bike ride raised funds for Special Population, which allowed the organization to purchase trikes.
Sara Sansone, Special Populations supervisor, said she likes the ride’s mission statement of drawing awareness to disabilities.
“They will be ambassadors,” she said of the cyclists.
Sansone said they will have the opportunity to touch others by sharing the experiences they had Monday, as well as learn more about people with disabilities.
Strickland said her son, who is a Pi Kappa Phi member, is the reason her family became involved in organizing the stop in Cape Coral.
“My son is always involved in special needs,” she said.
Strickland’s son, Stephen Blythe, a graduate of Ida Baker High School, began Baker Buddies while attending school to offer such events as bowling and ice cream socials to engage interaction with special needs students.
“It has exploded since then,” he said of the club.
After graduating high school, he enrolled at the University of Tennessee and joined the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity his freshman year. In August 2011, Blythe decided to become more involved by participating in Journey of Hope, a bike ride that departed from San Francisco June 9, 2011, and ended in Washington, D.C., Aug. 10, 2011. He said the trip included 60 cycling days with an average of 80 to 85 miles a day.
Each cyclist had to raise a minimum of $5,500. Blythe raised $9,100 for the ride. He said the great thing about the ride is when they stopped for “Friendship Visits” a grant was given that day with the money they raised.
“You do see it’s being put to good use,” he said.
Blythe said the life changing experience was the perfect college experience. The men he rode with from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., have become his close friends. The most difficult part of the experience was saying goodbye to those friends after spending 70 straight days with them.
Shey Siegert, now a junior in college, left Idaho to attend college in Alabama. He became involved in the Pi Kappa Phi two years ago because he wanted to get involved in a fraternity that touched upon academics, social and philanthropy. Siegert said the fraternity spoke to him because he had a friend in high school who had a brother with Down Syndrome.
“He was always happy to see me,” Siegert said of the experience that encouraged him to continue to hang out with others with disabilities.
This year, 21 cyclists from 10 to 15 different states and eight crew members are participating in the Gear Up Florida ride. Siegert said some of the cyclists traveled from California, Iowa, Ohio, Arizona, Alabama and Florida.
Those who participated in Gear Up Florida had to raise a minimum of $2,500, which enabled the group to provide a grant of more than $50,000 to Special Populations before leaving Monday afternoon.
Siegert said he raised $2,600 by reaching out to alumni, starting an email campaign, making phone calls and starting a Facebook page. He said everyone who made a donation through Facebook will receive a journal that includes daily photographs and excerpts.
The ride began Sunday, May 10, with 95 miles from Miami to Clewiston.
The cyclists arrived at Special Populations around 11:30 a.m. Monday for a “Friendship Visit.” After being greeted, the cyclists gathered under the pavilion to hear Cape Coral City Councilmember Rick Williams read a proclamation declaring Monday, May 11, as “Gear Up Florida Day.” The cyclists then handed out slices of pizza to the members of Special Populations before sitting down and joining them for conversations.
“I have never been to a Friendship Visit,” Siegert said. “It’s pretty amazing . . . having a great conversation with everyone.”
Sansone said since the cyclists stopped during the time they offer programs, the fraternity members had the opportunity to dance, take a walk and play games with those who attend Special Populations.
“For our group, they get to meet college students,” she said of the learning and growth experience.
After leaving Special Populations, the cyclists traveled to Lee County ARC in Fort Myers. Strickland was having the team over for dinner Monday night before they headed to Sarasota Tuesday morning. The ride will conclude Saturday, May 23, in Tallahassee after visiting 13 cities, for a total of 866 miles.
Nick Julian, who is the logistics coordinator for the ride, said he makes sure the roads they travel are safe and plans events during the ride.
“To be able to engage this way shows how great Florida is,” he said of the Monday event.
Vans travel with the cyclist to ensure they are safe and have what they need throughout the ride. Siegert said every 10 miles the vans will park and provide the cyclist with water and food while they are still riding. He said about every 10 miles he will eat a Cliff bar and about every 20 miles will hydrate with water.
In addition to the vans, Siegert said the cyclists also look out for each other during the ride with open communication. He said if one of them sees a piece of metal, they yell out debris and left or right.