This June, three members of UNC fraternity Pi Kappa Phi — Ethan Mou, Cole Bright and Bo Bell — set out on a 3700-mile cross-country cycling marathon to raise awareness for people with disabilities.
As part of this "Journey of Hope," Mou, Bright and Bell, all rising juniors at UNC, are biking from San Fransisco to Washington, D.C.
Bell said they average 70 miles of biking a day, and will reach Washington, D.C. on August 13.
The journey is hosted by the Ability Experience, a philanthropic initiative from Pi Kappa Phi. Members of the fraternity from different chapters around the country participate in three different routes across the country.
The UNC cyclists are participating in the north route after months of training leading up to the journey.
To be selected, the cyclists applied through the Ability Experience website and also took part in a phone call interview.
Bell said the trio also each had to raise a minimum of $6,500 in order to join the marathon, which they did through fundraisers and alumni donations.
They bike in the morning and at night they share shared experiences with people with disabilities or tour organizations that involve those with disabilities.
Bell said on one of the first big friendship visits, the cyclists arrived to a large crowd of people cheering them on.
"We take off our helmet, we put it on the handlebar, and we just kind of look into the crowd and everyone's cheering and we're all smiling and just seeing how receptive and open these people were to us brought a tear to my eye," Bell said. "I was kind of choking back tears. And that was just something beautiful."
Kelly Carpenter, a church administrator at Christ United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City, has a 14-year-old son named Travis who has neurofibromatosis, a disability that causes tumors to form on nerve tissue.
Because Carpenter is an administrator at the church, the cyclists spent the night there to spend time with Travis Carpenter and learn more about neurofibromatosis.
"We bring our Wii from home and he plays backyard football and he beats them badly, like he creams them in backyard football and shows no mercy, and they all just surround him and really get to know him even in this short weekend," Carpenter said.
Travis Carpenter said he looks back fondly on playing games with the cyclists and giving them a tour around the hospital.
“I hope people can teach more about their awareness to people who don't know what's going on,” Travis Carpenter said.
Bright said that one of the biggest reasons he decided to go on the Journey of Hope was because his cousin has a disability.
“(People with disabilities are) an overlooked community that not many people give the time of day to," Bright said. "And so I just feel like giving back something that's huge for them."
Bell said that, at first, he went into the Journey of Hope thinking about how he could change someone else’s life, but he soon realized that the people he was meeting are changing his life a lot more than he was changing theirs.
“And I feel like going into that was completely the wrong mindset – and now I'm realizing that the individuals I'm meeting along the route and the connections that I'm making, they're far more changing my life than I feel like I can ever give back to them,” Bell said.
Mou said he joined the trip because a close friend of his has Pitt-Hopkins syndrome.
“He's taught me so many things, whether that is how people view him or how he is treated by others,” Mou said. “Or just the daily life of what he goes through every day.”
Mou said people who want to do the Journey of Hope next year should be prepared for hardship, but should also keep an open mind.
“This is a pretty life-changing experience, if not the most life-changing experience of my life, and I would love for other people to have that same opportunity as I did, to learn from the people that I've met, to create the relationships I have with the people on the trip.”
Elisa Banyard, adventure program manager of National Ability Center in Utah, whose goal is to empower individuals of all abilities through sport and recreation programs.
Banyard said that Journey of Hope cyclists checked into the NAC at the end of June.
“I thought they were a really cool group,” Banyard said. “I was super stoked to have them here with us."
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