They had cycled nearly 2,000 miles in the brutal summer heat.
The wind pounded, the rain poured, the sun burned.
But none of that mattered when the Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity brothers stepped into the Inclusions Connections activity center in Olathe on a recent Tuesday afternoon.
Smiling faces and enthusiastic cheers greeted them, reminding the cyclists their cross-country journey was not about the ride, it was about hope.
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The 28 men — all members of Pi Kappa Phi fraternity chapters from across the nation — are cycling from Seattle to Washington, D.C., this summer on behalf of The Ability Experience: a Journey of Hope, a fundraising and awareness event. Each year, the ride raises more than half a million dollars to support programs that help people with disabilities.
During the trip, the cyclists will make 47 stops to visit with disability-related organizations.
In Olathe, the fraternity brothers spent a peaceful afternoon hanging out with members from Inclusion Connections, a nonprofit organization that serves Johnson County teenagers and young adults with disabilities.
Talking, playing board games and tossing around a basketball with teenagers were the little moments the cyclists knew they would treasure the most from their journey, they said.
Joel Blankenship, a junior studying political science at Kansas State University, gave up the opportunity to pursue congressional internships this summer to go on the ride.
“I’m a different person now,” he said. “Something changes you during this trip. Meeting people and hearing their stories opens up an entire world you didn’t even realize exists.”
When the college students pedaled into Olathe, they were simply expecting a place to put up their feet for a few days.
Instead, the city rolled out the red carpet.
The cyclists received a police escort to the Olathe Community Center, where cheering fans, city officials and even the Olathe Fire Department greeted them.
They were given passes for the recreational facility, free haircuts and massages, and a proclamation from the mayor. They also received a tour of the Garmin headquarters.
The Kansas School for the Deaf offered comfortable lodging for a couple of nights.
The Olathe festivities were sponsored by the city’s Persons with Disabilities Advisory Board.
“I’m proud of the welcome we received here,” said Blankenship, who is from the Wichita area. “Rolling in after a hot day and seeing all the people cheering really lifted our spirits. It shows the other guys Kansas is a great state.”
That’s not the only thing the Sunflower State had to offer the cyclists.
“Oh man, it’s brutal out here,” Blankenship said, with a laugh. “Kansas is hilly, it’s definitely not flat, which I know surprised a lot of the guys. Fortunately, I’m used to it.”
Members of Inclusion Connections were thrilled to hang out with the fraternity brothers. The activities center buzzed with laughter and enthusiasm during the gathering.
Thirteen-year-old Janae Coughlin played Wii with the guys.
“Hanging out with them was fun,” she said. “I’ve made a lot of friends.”
Across the room, 19-year-old Matthew Horn helped a few of the cyclists complete a puzzle.
“They’re awesome,” he said, his eyes lighting up. “I’ve been looking forward to their visit all day.”
The scene warmed the heart of Horn’s mother, Debbie, who is the director of Inclusion Connections.
“It’s amazing because they’ve given up their entire summer to raise awareness,” she said about the cyclists. “You can see they’re beaten up and they’ve been through it all, but they don’t complain. They’re very respectful young men.”
Horn founded Inclusion Connections two years ago because her son longed for a social life. The organization currently serves 80 members and has 250 volunteers, mostly high school students.
It features a summer camp and other fun events, such as Royals watch parties, game nights, dance lessons and art classes.
This marks the second year Inclusion Connections has partnered with The Ability Experience.
To cap off the ride, the cycling team that stopped in Olathe will meet up with two other teams in Washington, D.C., in early August to complete the final miles to the Capitol steps.
“Over the past several weeks, these guys have become more than my friends, they’re my family,” said cyclist Francis Ahrens, a Missouri State University senior. “We motivate each other on the road and it gets us through the rough patches.”
Before the trip began, the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity brothers had the entire school year to raise money for the trip.
Each cyclist raises $5,500 and each crew member, who follows the cyclists in a van for safety reasons, raises $2,500.
Money can be raised in various ways, with most of the guys holding garage sales or car washes.
The money is then donated to selected disability-related organizations around the country.