Riding for autism
Ask most people whether they consider themselves charitable and they’ll tell you they are. They write checks, participate in 5Ks to raise money for this or that. They’ll volunteer at a soup kitchen, or do any of the countless things that make life easier for the disabled or less fortunate. They give of themselves. But they are not R.J. Barnes.
They are not the 18-year-old senior at Benedictine High School in Richmond, Va. They are not the Eagle Scout who plays catcher for the baseball team of his prestigious military academy. And they are certainly not going to be spending their summer riding a bicycle from Virginia to San Francisco to raise money for autism awareness.
Every day for the next one-and-a-half months, Barnes will hop on his road bike every morning and ride west for a cause that he knew very little about just a year ago.
That’s not to say other charitable endeavors are any less important or deserving of our praise. But averaging 70 miles per day for two months on a cross-country trip on a bicycle? That is something else entirely.
Speaking to Barnes, however, one doesn’t get the impression that he’s too nervous about it. He rejected his parents’ requests that he ride with a partner (though after consulting with several local bike shops and experienced riders, he’s warming to the idea). He plans on using his Eagle Scout skills to spend most of his nights camping out under the stars. And he can’t wait to get started.
Your typical teenager he is not.The goal is to raise $10,000 for the Maryland-based Autism Society of America. Barnes is seeking donations from individuals and is not shy about calling businesses with his sales pitch.
He didn’t expect much from his cold calls, but he said the response has been encouraging. He was shocked when an insurance company ponied up a sizeable donation.
“You always hear how bad insurance companies are about money, but they helped a lot,” he says. He hopes to raise half the money by the time the trip starts.
“I’m just trying to help,” he says. “If everybody helped, we’d all be better off. I’m just trying to help that one family. Any one person can make a difference.”
The Autism Society of America was created in 1965 by Dr. Bernard Rimland, Dr. Ruth Sullivan and many other parents of children with autism and has since become a leading organization in raising autism awareness. The organization increases public awareness about the day-to-day issues faced by people on the spectrum, advocates for appropriate services for individuals across the lifespan, and provides the latest information regarding treatment, education, research and advocacy, according to their website.
The Society encourages grassroots fundraising and awareness programs, like Barnes’ bike trip, through its 1Power4Autism.org website. On the site, users can find fundraisers in their area to participate in or start their own.
Events range from the conventional golf outing, motorcycle ride or triathlon to the more extreme. In January, two longtime Autism Society members climbed Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, to raise funds for the Society and other causes.
“It is wonderful to see a young person so motivated to make a difference,” says Heather Bohannon, Autism Society Director of Corporate Relations and National Events. “Grassroots support from people like R.J. is really the backbone of the autism community, and we’re so excited that he was able to use 1Power4Autism.org to find his own unique way of helping us improve the lives of everyone affected by autism.”
The entire endeavor began in his local library as he waited to be picked up after school by his father. Barnes spent most afternoons there waiting for a ride to his home in Goochlan, Va., 40 minutes away from Richmond. One afternoon as he studied, he noticed a mother attempting to teach her autistic son to recognize words and pictures in a picture book.
“It was interesting to watch this mother trying to teach her son to read,” Barnes says in his slight Southern drawl. “After that I started to do some research into autism. The more things I read I wanted to help.”
Barnes wants to help everybody. He said his time in the Scouts has fostered a sense of community service and the discipline of his school has shaped his focus. He tutors middle school-aged children at a parochial school affiliated with his own and felt that his experience could be applied to tutoring children with autism. After some more research, he felt that would be a bit out of his reach, but he continued to search for ways to help.
Barnes says that as a child, he struggled with a stuttering problem that was eventually corrected. But what he learned about autism made him realize the struggles that some kids just like him went through everyday.
“It’s a mystery, and if affects so many people,” he says. “We need to raise awareness.”
After scouring the internet, he came across the blog of a woman who had bicycled across the country for charity. Barnes said he grew up riding through wooded trails on his mountain bike and knew that this was want he wanted to do. He began training in earnest, pushing himself on daily bicycle rides. First, 100 miles from Richmond to Fredericksburg and eventually 160 miles from Richmond to Charlottesville.
When it was raining outside, he trained indoors on a stationary bike. While the physical training was sufficient, however, he quickly grew bored of the static surroundings. He longed for the open road and its many distractions.
“In a car, everything is just a blur. When I’m riding, I can actually see things,” Barnes says. “It’s like everything is in slow motion, you notice everything. You feel free and you see the sights. And I don’t need to wait for a ride from my dad.”
Barnes kept himself focused on training and read numerous blogs and forums to educate himself on what to expect on the road. He consulted with bicycle shops on equipment, sought out donations, and planned out his route with detailed maps and lists of possible hotels, hostels, and campgrounds to lay his head at night.
He originally planned on riding his bicycle at least 100 miles per day. But after those first trips to Fredericksburg, he realized that might be pushing it a little.
“One hundred miles a day sort of fell by the wayside,” he laughs. There was also the slight matter of convincing his parents to let him go.
“We were a little nervous at first, but we’re excited he’s doing something for a worthy cause,” says Leona Barnes, R.J.’s mother. “He’s willing to work hard and he’s not looking for glory. He’s thinking beyond himself.”
Courtesy Spectrum Publications