The cycling trek lasts only two weeks, but the memories made along the 800-miles of Gear Up Florida’s route won’t soon forget Pi Kappa Phi members like Sean Austin. The Northwestern State University junior was among 36 cyclists and crew members riding across the State of Florida to re-shape the perception of people with disabilities. “I’m just an average person that accomplished something I didn’t think I could do a month ago.”
On May 12, 2013, the cycling event kicked off on the shores of Miami, traveled through the Florida orange fields, reached the Gulf coast, passed through Orlando, wound back to the Atlantic coast and culminated at the State Capitol in Tallahassee. The team spread a message of acceptance and understanding to communities in Florida through newspapers, radio and television, civic groups and community leaders, reaching millions of people. As a cyclist, Austin pedaled 80 to 85 miles between each city, before participating in a ‘friendship visit’ with an organization that serves people with disabilities in each community. The smiles from supporters waiting at each arrival was enough motivation. ” If you put your head down and push through, you truly can accomplish things you would never expect.”
Gear Up Florida’s programming is what makes this event so unique. Every event is centered on the mission of the trek. Some days, team members will visit three different organizations that support people with disabilities. Seeing the direct impact on the people they raise money for is very emotional for team members. Many cannot help but be touched by the gratitude and kindness that is shown along Gear Up Florida. “Every friendship visit meant the world to me– whether finger-painting or knocking down a few pins at bowling. My day was made,” Austin said.
The trek provides a heavy dose of life perspective that leaves participants inspired and motivated to do more for people with disabilities. For Austin, his most memorable stop was the MacDonald Training Center (MTC) in Tampa. “It started out like anywhere else– you meet the employees who assist clients but then they showed us something we didn’t expect.” MTC provides day services to people with developmental disabilities, including innovative job skills training and life enrichment activities. Currently, people served by MTC package toll way transponders for the Florida Department of Transportation, produce safety vests, wind socks, flags, and biodegradable sediment tubes for Sea Grass Recovery. This provides their clients the independence to retain community-based employment.
For Austin, being selected for the 2013 team is an achievement in itself. The Health and Physical Education major from DeRidder, Louisiana raised $3,722 to support the organizations reached through Gear Up Florida. Collectively, this year’s team raised $78,644 that will directly benefit people with disabilities. Austin was selected to ride after a rigorous application process, which included a one-thousand word essay and phone interview.
Recent Gear Up Florida participants from the Beta Omicron Chapter at NSU joined friends and family members waiting for this year’s team to arrive in Tallahassee on May 25. Past crew member Ryan Jeffords and two-time cyclist Cameron Moises were cheering as the team ended their trek at the steps of the Florida State Capitol.
As the chapter Vice President, Austin hopes to expand Push America’s presence in the Natchitoches community, helping others to recognize the abilities of those with disabilities. “I plan to use my experience to help energize others about Pi Kappa Phi’s annual scaffold sit and a bike-a-thon. I’d also like to see the return of our empathy dinner.”
Gear Up Florida was created with one mission in mind: to reach out to as many people as possible across the State of Florida, spreading a message of acceptance and understanding on behalf of people with disabilities. Since 1997, more than 300 Pi Kappa Phi members have participated in Gear Up Florida.
The following is an entry on the Gear Up Florida 2013 blog, written by Sean Austin:
Day 14 – Wednesday, May 22, 2013 The day started out just like most other days. We had a quick, helpful breakfast thanks to Mike Hill. Bagels and fruit was just what the team needed to get our ride going. As we started our ride out we faced a few tough lengthy hills, but the cyclists muscled through them. As we were finishing up our ride we reached a parking lot that we pulled into so that we could meet up with the Gainesville Police, who gave us a 6 mile escort to the Gainesville ARC. This arrival is probably in my top three. I have never felt like such a rock-star, signing autographs, shaking hands, and taking pictures. We have several camera crews for local news stations and many different via ways for media whether it’s magazines or newspapers. After the extreme hype of the arrival we had lunch provided by Sheila Spence which proceeded into a friendship visit where we danced and sang the oldies including the cupid shuffle and electric slide. After leaving the friendship visit we headed to lodging, Trinity United Methodist Church. We got ourselves cleaned up the headed on out to Sheila Spence’s gorgeous home where we had one of my favorite dinners as of yet. Her husband put together a slide show with the pictures he took of us at our arrival today which was outstanding. For everything Mrs. Sheila and all of our sponsors today we give you a great big thank you!
[Portions of this article from www.pushamerica.org]