A family’s tradition

Sylvia Fuerstenberg and Sam Margolis at a recent Family Weekend at Arizona State University.

For many of those young men, it could be their first interaction with someone with a disability; for others, it could be a warm meal and a warmer smile to make “home” feel a little less distant. At the beginning of what is sure to be a mentally and physically challenging, strenuous and extremely rewarding summer, each and every team member’s summer begins on a high note thanks to The Arc of King County.

As remembered by a three-time TransAmerica crew member, “I’ll always remember that visit with The Arc as one of the highlights of the summer, especially my first year. The staff, clients and volunteers of The Arc made us feel so welcome and appreciated for what we were doing. And not only because they were impressed that our guys were riding their bikes across the country, but impressed that we’d given a summer ultimately to increase our understanding and empathy of people with disabilities.”

One of the people behind that Friendship Visit is Sylvia Fuerstenberg, executive director of The Arc of King County. Since she joined The Arc’s staff six years ago, the TransAmerica team has made a visit each year before kick-off in Seattle.
“I think it started when someone from Push America called The Arc of King County to ask about a Friendship Visit while they were still in Seattle,” Sylvia said. “Between Journey of Hope and the local Pi Kappa Phi chapter relationship, the relationship between The Arc and Push America is a strong one. One that we value deeply.”

Sylvia Fuerstenberg has been serving people with disabilities for over 30 years, after she achieved a master’s degree in social work. “Basically, for my entire adult life, I’ve been working with people with disabilities. It’s been an extremely rewarding line of work.”

As would any profession, Sylvia’s work within the disability community has made a tremendous impact on her family. “I’ve always tried to share my experiences with people with disabilities with my family,” she said. “It has added such a rich element to our family. My husband and both my kids have devoted an extraordinary amount of time to many different events over the years.”

One of those events has been the TransAmerica team’s Friendship Visit in Seattle. Sylvia’s son, Sam, first saw the team in 2009, his junior year in high school. What stuck out to Sam wasn’t so much that it was a group of fraternity men spending their summer with people with disabilities, but more so how they were traveling.

“I think, at the time, I was more impressed by the fact that they were riding their bikes across the country. I was also a junior in high school, and I was starting to think a lot about college life and all that,” Sam said. “I was particularly intrigued that there were so many engineering majors, which was the direction I was heading.”

Just two years later, Sam enrolled at Arizona State University as an engineering major. When choosing ASU, Sam was only concerned with their engineering program. During a Greek life introductory walk through, however, Sam saw something that he immediately recognized: the Theta Xi chapter of Pi Kappa Phi was actively promoting their involvement with Push America.

“I consider it a very ‘happy coincidence’ that I went to a school with such an active Push America chapter of Pi Kappa Phi,” Sam said. “I was blown away by the chapter’s level of involvement and interaction with people with disabilities. That relationship had grown so strong in me thanks in a lot of ways to my mom’s work. To see other people my age encouraging and engaging people with disabilities was pretty great to see.”

Growing up, engaging people with disabilities was a normal part of everyday life for Sam and his family. “I remember not being able to walk more than five steps through our local mall without seeing someone my mom knew from her work. I met a lot of people, and had a ton of great experiences. And I realize now that not everyone had the fortune of that growing up,” Sam added.

Not long after his introduction to ASU’s Greek life, Sam joined the Theta Xi chapter of Pi Kappa Phi. And not long after that, Sam made the decision to take the opportunity only offered to members of Pi Kappa Phi; he joined the 2014 Journey of Hope team as a cyclist, with a preference for the TransAmerica route, of course.

“Now that I have this opportunity, it’s like everything is kind of coming full circle. Obviously it’s an exciting and adventurous prospect to ride a bike across the country, but I also know that I’m going to gain more dedication and excitement for both people with disabilities and Pi Kappa Phi,” Sam said, excitedly. He continued, “I know this is going to strengthen my brotherhood and also my passion for people with disabilities. Interaction is key, and I’m living out that belief through Journey of Hope.”

One might think that Sylvia’s focus might shift to worried parent after Sam decided to do Journey of Hope. Her reaction, as it turned out, was quite the opposite.

“Oh! I was thrilled,” she exclaimed. “Very excited when he told me he signed up. Sam has a passion, and he’s also very athletic, so it made perfect sense. I’m VERY proud that he would dedicate a summer to a cause that I care so deeply about.”

While the 2014 team’s arrival in Washington still seems so far off, both Sam and Sylvia are looking forward to being reunited on the Capitol lawn next August. When asked what they each expect that day, Sam said, “Lots of tears, mostly from mom.”

“Tears of pride and joy, for sure,” Sylvia quickly said. “Sam and I are close anyway, and I think this will bond us even more. I hope it’s an adventure that carries on to new adventures, knowing he can persevere and accomplish something like that. Organizations like The Arc of King County need people like Sam and the rest of Pi Kappa Phi out there in the world from all walks of life.”

After pausing to reflect, Sylvia added, “However he chooses to contribute to the world, I know Sam will make a difference.”