Students reflect on summer of service

Marc Ramirez, News editor

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Three Western Illinois University students, leaders and members of Pi Kappa Phi lived a summer of service as they participated in a cross country bicycling philanthropy event.

Kyle Ramlow, Justin Brown and Derek Lahey packed their bags and said goodbye to their families as they prepared to ride a bike from San Francisco to Washington D.C. The three seniors participated in the fraternity’s philanthropy event Journey of Hope, run through The Ability Experience.

According to Ramlow, who served as the fraternity’s Philanthropy Chairman for the Spring 2019 semester, The Ability Experience was founded in 1976 by fraternity brother Thomas Sayre and was originally known as PUSH. PUSH had a couple meanings over the years, originally meaning Play Units for the Severely Handipcaped then later being changed to People Understanding the Severely Handicapped. The organization’s name was even changed to Push America before receiving the current name The Ability Experience in 2014.

“Now, every summer, members of Pi Kappa Phi cycle from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle to Washington, D.C. while delivering a message of understanding,” theabilityexperiience.org reads.

“This past summer our route, along with two others, stopped at organizations that share similar messages as to that of our philanthropy while promoting the abilities of all people,” Brown said. “By being inclusive and making a change in the way people perceive those with disabilities is truly the first step to making a difference. Disability truly doesn’t mean inability and that’s the message we hope to share with the world.”

The three Western students cycled and crewed alongside 23 other fraternity brothers from all across the United States. Each participant pledged themselves to raise a minimum of $6,000 in efforts to present give grants to camps on their way across the country.

When speaking with each participant, it became clear that the purpose of their summer wasn’t to better themselves or have something incredible they could say they did that summer, it was to create a community where the abilities of all people are recognized and valued.

Lahey spoke about how he met a boy named Travis from Salt Lake City, UT. The two bonded over their love of NASCAR and the fact that they shared the same favorite driver, Kyle Busch, and had many other similarities, like how their favorite movie is Cars 3.

“We would sit together at every event and meal over those two days in Utah,” Lahey said.

“On the morning we were leaving, Travis surprised me by showing up at 5 a.m. to our morning circle up just to see us all one last time. It was a great morale booster that motivated myself and the whole team in that 125 mile day.“

Lahey also spoke about how his newly found friend was constantly on his mind and encouraged him to continue to push on, even on days where the ride was tough on his brain and his body.

“I had some mechanical issues with my bike, causing a struggle for the whole day,” he said. “I wanted to quit, but pushed through the frustration. As I finished the day, I laid down unmotivated to do anything and was very angry. That was when my phone buzzed with a text from Travis. He texted me, keep pedaling hard! And then sent a selfie in the T-shirt our team gave him. Travis was constantly cheering me on throughout the summer and I would have never made it without him.”

The men spoke about how the trip is outlined for the Pi Kappa Phi members to make a difference in the lives of the people they come in contact with over the course of their trip; however, it quickly becomes the people at friendship visits who make the trip unforgettable for the college students, making them wish the trip would never end.

Brown spoke about his time spent in Grand Island, Neb. and how he was able to meet and get closer to a participant named Bradley through their extended two-night stay.

“Seeing him smile as we danced for hours or seeing him laugh at me when I missed the frisbee just made me so happy,” Brown said. “It’s truly a time where we take our cool caps off and just get to be ourselves and through that, make life a little brighter for someone else. I quickly learned that there is so much more than just completing the ride; making a difference in small ways like sweating through my shirt dancing to make a participant laugh truly was the highlight of my summer.”

Ramlow shared similar memories, specifically, the time he spent at Spina Bifida Omaha in Omaha, Neb. He shared the instant feeling of pride in knowing what he was dedicating his summer to was something he could and would never regret, simply by the way participants welcomed the team.

“We would step into every visit and see that we didn’t know anybody, but they instantly loved us,” he said. “We make their lives better for those two hours we are there, better than some birthdays or Christmas for some people. The impact that we make and relationships created still carry on to this day.”

The three reflect back on their time this summer and also recognize the fact that they had some unforgettable moments with guys they only knew a little over two months and the life lessons they taught one another.

“Being crew, I was on the road a lot and it made me realize to enjoy the little things in life,” Ramlow said. “Stop and smell the roses. I had a lot of time to reflect on my life and there are many more things to life and the trip than the big picture.”

Ramlow also added that he learned to stay humble by serving others. He said that he wishes to continue serving people with disabilities through The Ability Experience to ensure that every person gets the chance to be accepted.

“If I can put a smile on one person’s face a day, then I know I’m doing something right,” he said.

Brown built upon that, explaining that some of the best memories were also times spent with brothers, getting to know them better. He reminisced on walking around Western Michigan University for hours, having late night conversations with some of the guys, sharing memories and lessons with one another.

“I learned that people may not understand that our lives are impacted by the individuals we meet along the way,” Brown said. “We were able to see the impact our organization has and the work that still needs to be done. It is important for us to not only continue to share that message of acceptance, but to recruit others who do the same.”

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