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Students’ Bike4 Alz Event Raises Awareness of Alzheimer’s Disease

Photography Provided

When this article was originally written we were well aware of the Coronavirus, but it had not begun to have as great of an effect on our population as we’ve experienced during the past few months. As of now, as this article is being updated in early April, and there is no certainty as to whether the event in this story will run as scheduled, or even happen as expected. Yet, we still want to share the story of a group of young men from Kentucky who have been planning a cross-country ride to help combat Alzheimer’s Disease. Even if this event doesn’t occur, they will still need your help. Thank you for allowing us to share this piece. This is the original piece. Word has it if things begin to clear up, the group may start their trip in mid-summer.

As spring turns to summer and the thought-free days ahead begin to enter students’ minds, many begin to plan how they will spend their time off between May and August. Trey Sims, John Downing, and a dozen of their fraternity brothers from Phi Gamma Delta fraternity at Western Kentucky University (WKU) have been gauging their summer plans since late last year. But they’re not heading to Destin or the Bahamas — they’re spending their vacation time traveling across the U.S. — on bicycles.

The young men from Phi Gamma Delta (nicknamed Fiji) are making this trek on behalf of a non-profit organization called Bike4Alz. According to the Bike4Alz.org website, this organization has been in existence since 2010 and was founded by WKU student Tyler Jury who lost his grandfather, Barrett Cummings, to Alzheimer’s. Jury, along with five of his fraternity brothers, diligently worked on this project for 18 months to plan their inaugural trip from San Diego, California to Yorktown, Virginia. They raised $60,000, which was donated to the Alzheimer’s Association. This year’s team has their sights set on $80,000 which they will also donate to the Association.

Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death. An estimated 5.8 million Americans of all ages have Alzheimer’s disease and the number is rapidly on the rise. Not only are the patients affected by this debilitating disease, their family members are as well.

Sims, who is from Fisherville, and Downing, from Bowling Green, both lost family members to Alzheimer’s. Sims’ paternal grandfather, the grandfather’s siblings, and some aunts, suffered from Alzheimer’s. Plus, his maternal grandfather suffered from dementia. Downing had a great aunt, Sara Taylor, who was also affected by Alzheimer’s.

“Even though she was a great-aunt, I knew her my whole life and she had Alzheimer’s basically from the time I was born,” Downing says. “I witnessed the progression of her Alzheimer’s as I grew up.”    

These are just two of many stories that have inspired Sims, Downing and the others to take part in this crusade against Alzheimer’s. This is the eighth ride that Bike4Alz has coordinated, and this year it will begin in San Francisco, California, on May 22 and end on July 28 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The group takes off from Bowling Green on May 18 and makes the 50-hour journey, by car, to the Golden State. Once they arrive in San Francisco, they’ll spend a few days with Fiji brothers on the campus of UC Berkeley.   

There was a specific selection process applicants had to go through. The team was chosen by a committee of three which included Downing, his vice-president, Kody Okert (a member of Kappa Sigma fraternity at WKU) who’s from Hendersonville, and last year’s Bike4Alz president Gabe Hitz.

“We chose the members according to a set of criteria we put into place,” Downing says. “One of the most important points was to find those who had been affected by Alzheimer’s. We wanted to make sure that people who had seen it first-hand got to be on the bike to honor their relative.”

Their plan is to only take 14 members in order to make things more manageable for the trip. Twelve do the riding while the other two members are part of the support team driving vehicles that will carry supplies and tow the trailer that carries their gear and bikes.

All members are from Kentucky and as of now include, along with Sims, Downing and Okert, Jake York and Ben Betts from Shelbyville, Will Chaney, Spencer Cassady, Nate Robb and Kyle Allen from Bowling Green, Justin Geilear from Versailles, Riley Crawford from Somerset; T. Harne and Will Thompson from Liberty, and Cy Whitler from Greenville.

The team travels through 10 states: California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia. Along their 3,584-mile course they will stop in cities such as Ely, Nevada, Saratoga Springs, Utah, Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Osbourne, Kansas, Murphysboro, Illinois, Nashville, Tennessee, and Pikeville, Kentucky. Members of the team receive assignments to find lodging, plus they work on locating places where they can hold fundraising events. Sims is the event planner and it is his job to oversee all of the fundraising efforts that take place across the country. Personally, he is working on a fundraising event that will take place on July 12 in Middletown at Wetherby Park at the city’s concert series. (NOTE: this series may be canceled depending on the current situation regarding the Coronavirus.) The team will be holding a silent auction and spreading information about the combined efforts between Bike4Alz and the Alzheimer’s Association of Louisville. Sims is also reaching out to area restaurants to put together fundraising nights where the team will receive a portion of the sales made during the evening.

Training for this event essentially takes place when the students have time to squeeze it in between their classes and work commitments.

“When the weather wasn’t so great the members would go to the gym and use the stationary bikes to get into shape,” Downing explains. “We also have group messaging, so when one member wanted to get others together to go riding, we’d coordinate that way as well. We’d get out and do 15 -mile bike rides. Then there are some people who try to get a little in each day by biking to their classes.”   

Over the past few months the riders had to raise their own money, a total of $1,500, to help cover their personal expenses for the trip.

“This is for food, lodging and for our bikes,” Sims says. “We’d get sponsorships from friends, family members and anyone we could to help us along the way.”

One of their biggest expenses is purchasing the bikes they’ll be riding. Fortunately, a business located in Bowling Green, Nat’s Outdoor Sports, is helping them by offering discounts on their bikes.

Leaders from the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association are very pleased and proud of these young men. Roberta Steutermann, Director of Development, explains that the students take this project on with very little guidance from their organization.

“It’s something they’re very passionate about, this is something they’re truly committed to, and they take it on as a leadership role,” she says.

Emalee Morley, manager for “The Longest Day” fundraising event for the Alzheimer’s Association, says they’ve been able to work with the students to prepare them with bullet points they can share along the way.

“We did a training with them on understanding Alzheimer’s and dementia and walking them through on how to talk about the disease and how to talk about the research because they are touching every chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association and their constituents from California to Virginia, and everywhere in between,” she says. “We’re hoping to do that every year for every group of Bike4Alz so they can go out into the communities and feel confident talking to people about our mission.”

For further information about these students and their mission, go to Bike4Alz.org. You can donate to their cause and also find out where they will be stopping along the way. They would appreciate any support they can receive from community members in all states and cities. For more information about the Alzheimer’s Association, go to alz.org/kyin.

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