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Cross-country Journey of Hope raises funds, disability awareness

Cyclists from the Ability Experience, lea by Adam Brown, ride along the 606 Trail for a meet-up with riders from Envision Unlimited on Wednesday, July 26. | Leslie Adkins/For the Sun-Times

Frat boys. Three dozen of them. On a Journey of Hope.

That’s who these men and women with disabilities were waiting for, lined up Wednesday morning along the 606 Trail.

For 30 years, members of Pi Kappa Phi college Fraternity have cycled cross-country each summer for their signature project, The Ability Experience. Their mission: To raise awareness of challenges facing people with developmental disabilities, and money for organizations nationwide that serve them.

“Journey of Hope has come here now for a number of years, and every year, I’m astounded by the character of these young men. I mean, these are college kids. They could be doing anything else,” said Kristen Noonan, program director at Westtown Center for special needs adults, sited just at the foot of the 606 Trail.

Three Kappa Phi teams left from San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle in June, on three different routes to converge mid-August in Washington, D.C. Along the way, they stop at organizations like Westtown Center, run by Envision Unlimited.

“The only way to describe it is it just puts you in awe — the time on the road, the people that you meet,” said frat member Ben Black, 22, of Daytona Beach. “Being able to interact with them in any way that they want, in any way that they are able, you learn it’s really more about their abilities than disabilities.”

As the Journey of Hope caravan appeared on the 606, excitement and celebration ensued. Westtown Center clients led the frat boys on a parade to their building at 1801 N. Spaulding for a party.

“They’re kind. They’re cool,” said client Marcus Womack, 30, of Humboldt Park.

Daniel Gramer, from the Ability Experience, shares a tandem with Marcus Womack, of Envision Unlimited, on Wednesday at a partyat the Envision Unlimited Westtown Center. | Leslie Adkins/For the Sun-Times
Daniel Gramer, from the Ability Experience, shares a tandem with Marcus Womack, of Envision Unlimited, on Wednesday at a partyat the Envision Unlimited Westtown Center. | Leslie Adkins/For the Sun-Times

It was the 46th day in a 3,720-mile trek for this Journey of Hope North Team: 30 cyclists and eight crew members who had ridden 90 miles from Milwaukee a day before. With the two other teams, they’ll cycle 12,000 miles through 32 different states, and raise more than $650,000. Envision Unlimited got a $2,000 donation.

But that wasn’t the only donation Westtown Center celebrated Wednesday. Its clients were able to join in the cycling fun with Journey of Hope members — on 12 bikes donated to them, including six tandem bikes for two.

Westtown Center clients, until recently, could only watch from the window the cyclists enjoying the urban oasis of the 606. But the donation from nearby West Town Bikes shop changes that, and on Wednesday, Envision kicked off its “BuddyBiking the 606” project. It pairs neighborhood volunteers with Westtown clients to enjoy cycling together.

“I would totally ride across the country like them. I would totally do it, and do it perfectly,” said Westtown client Vahid Menkovic, 33, of Portage Park.

Frat member Daniel Gramer, 21, of Prospect Heights, was grateful he got to spend the night before in his own bed, but called the trip “life-changing.”

“The absolute best part has been the connections we’ve made during our ‘friendship visits’ along the way. When you see the struggles that individuals with disabilities deal with every day, it really impacts you more than you think,” Gramer said.