Story originally published for the Star & Lamp of Pi Kappa Phi – Summer 2019
One of the defining features of Journey of Hope and Gear Up Florida is the friendship visit. These nightly dance parties, games and interactions between people with disabilities and our team members are often considered some of the most valuable and meaningful experiences of the whole summer. For participants, this is where the “The Ability Experience moments” often take place; a special memory or bond between the Pi Kapp and a person they meet on the trip.”
These friendship visits don’t happen by chance, though. They’re typically a stop at one of our many community partner organizations. These community partner groups are often camps, live-in homes or resource networks that serve people with disabilities. These partners and The Ability Experience teams often have relationships over years or decades, with the stories of famous residents being told from one team to the next, while residents often mark “Ability Experience Day” on their calendars as an annual celebration akin to the holidays.
The longest standing partnership through the Journey of Hope is with The Arc of Amador and Calaveras in California. Mike Sweeney, executive director from 1989-2012, heard about the Journey of Hope team in 1989 and reached out to secure their first friendship visit in the summer of 1990. “We were all so excited to meet the cyclists and it became very clear very quickly that Pi Kappa Phi was not your typical fraternity,” Mike said. “The team was polite, genuinely interested in the people The Arc serves and committed to educating people across the country about the abilities of folks with the diagnosis of a ‘disability.’”
That initial picnic in the summer of 1990 would be the first of 30 friendship visits so far, now an annual tradition that residents and new team members excitedly look forward to. Mike mused that most of the cyclists now arriving and participating each summer weren’t even born back when the tradition started.
But there are bigger changes he’s noticed, too. First, that the cyclists weren’t just becoming leaders on their ride, but that they already were leaders by teaching inclusion, empathy, teamwork and integrity. Next is that The Arc understands that their residents are leaders too. “Their indomitable spirit and compassion teach our community about the value of perseverance, hard work, dedication and caring for our fellow citizens. They lead by example every day.”
Karyn Gregorius, executive director after Mike since 2012, values Journey of Hope just the same. “The people served by our programs treasure the experience of cheering on the riders and connecting with them in a meaningful way. It is hard to describe in words the lifelong memories that are created by every visit,”
“The best part of my job is witnessing human kindness, compassion and resilience in its most authentic form on a daily basis,” Gregorius said. As The Arc and The Ability Experience move past 30 years of creating shared experiences between people with disabilities and the men of Pi Kappa Phi, we can look forward to even more personal journeys and heartfelt connections.
The Ability Experience thanks The Arc and its residents for being such longstanding and meaningful partners.