DURING the school year, Taylor Babb is your typical college student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

He goes to classes, enjoys social functions as a fraternity brother in Pi Kappa Phi and catches up with his family south of Charlotte during holiday and school breaks.

But this summer, the rising college junior joined some 90 other Pi Kappa Phi brothers on a “Journey of Hope” he says has changed his life, cycling across the country to raise awareness, money and support for those with disabilities.

On Thursday, the 16 cyclists and six support team members of the Southern Journey of Hope team pedaled and drove support vans from Richmond to the Fredericksburg area, first stopping for a sponsored lunch at Fredericksburg Christian High School. Two other teams have taken different routes east this summer.

That evening found the Southern Journey Of Hope team members experiencing what they say transforms the cross-country ride into something more personally transforming: a “friendship visit,” dinner and full-on celebratory dance with local folks served by Rappahannock Adult Activities.

The annual event, held this year at the A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Spotsylvania County, saw the cyclists sharing dinner, dances and the excitement of the program participants who have developmental and physical disabilities.

Babb said it’s hard to put into words why sharing moments like Thursday night’s all along the ride has changed the way he sees the world and himself.

“On one of those friendship visits, in Lubbock, Texas, there was this one young man who couldn’t stop cheering and hugging me, saying how much he’d missed me, even though it was the first time we’d met,” said Babb, eyes tearing up a bit at the memory. “He must have hugged me for nearly 10 minutes, and had a huge smile on his face the rest of the night. To him, we were celebrities and that was so heartwarming to see.”

In addition to the excitement and personal touch the cyclists provide at visits to everything from churches to camps specializing on those with disabilities, the ride organized by a Pi Kappa Phi nonprofit called The Ability Experience offers financial grants, as well.

“Each of us is required to raise a minimum of $6,000 for projects that serve those with disabilities across the country,” said cyclist Ben Marus, who earlier this year graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology with a masters in industrial and systems engineering.

When sponsorships are included, this year’s Journey of Hope is expected to raise more than $750,000 for those with disabilities. The money will go toward grants for everything from amenities at camps for the disabled to various programs serving those with special needs.

Marus said that the ride has been transformative for him for two reasons: “The challenge of the ride itself, making you realize what you’re physically capable of, and the difference we get to make in every community where we’ve stopped, for the people we meet.”

Babb said all the cyclists, from the most experienced to those who’d spent little time on a bike seat before setting out, went through the same difficult breaking-in period in the first few weeks of riding 100 miles or so each day.

He noted that the ride—departing Santa Barbara, Calif., in early June and traversing more than 4,000 miles by the time the cyclists finish up this weekend in Washington—tested the mettle of each team member many ways.

“The first two weeks as we were going over the Rockies were tough,” he said. That challenge was followed by riding through the Mojave Desert, where temperatures hit a high of 116, he added.

“Then we dipped into the South and the humidity hit us, at 98 percent on one day,” he said. “Your body adjusts and you learn how to suck it up, and team members support each other when someone has trouble.”

Greg Dellanini, who just graduated from California State University Long Beach, echoed his fellow riders in talking about the physical test and transition his body went through getting used to riding for hours each day.

But he said the first friendship visit was what showed him what the project was really all about.

“It was a karaoke party,” he said. “Seeing all those big smiles, and hearing from the kids about how they look forward to the event the whole year really made an impression. We were just there for an hour, but the impact for those we visited with lasts so much longer.”

Cyclist Chael Williams, who goes to Mississippi State University, got to see that excitement firsthand at the dinner table he shared with Steve Walker and others who live in the group homes, apartment programs or foster care placements managed through the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board.

Williams asked Walker what he was most excited about after finishing up a dinner that included everything from pizza to fried chicken.

“Getting out there and dancing,” said Walker, who said he had been looking forward to the night for a while.

A few tables over, Judy Limerick said she also had been looking forward to hitting the dance floor.

Across the table, another female Rappahannock Adult Activities participant was a bit more specific about what she hoped to accomplish before the night was through: “meeting some of these fine young gentlemen.”

The dinner and party was a good example of the mission stated by The Ability Experience: “using shared experiences to support people with disabilities and develop the men of Pi Kappa Phi into servant leaders.”

Along with the Journey of Hope, The Ability Experience also builds amenities at camps for people with disabilities and host events with local partners at Pi Kappa Phi’s 185 chapters across the country.

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Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415 rhedelt@freelancestar.com

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