COLUMBIA — Matt Searcy had never been more excited to get to Columbia than he was Friday.
He beamed as he pulled up to 600 E. Rollins Road on his bike, the address of the temporary Pi Kappa Phi fraternity house.
Although Searcy had never been to the house before — Pi Kappa Phi only moved into the building this summer — he was home.
Searcy, an MU sophomore, is on the adventure of a lifetime: a cross-country bike ride with 82 other men that raises money and awareness for people with disabilities.
Searcy's 70-day Journey of Hope is organized by Push America, a nonprofit founded by Pi Kappa Phi.
To participate, each rider had to raise $5,500 before the trip started. The trip also employs crew members, who travel in vans and handle trip logistics such as overnight stays, meals and general organization. These crew members each raise a minimum $2,500. All riders and crew members are members of Pi Kappa Phi.
There are three separate groups riding across America this summer as part of the Journey of Hope. One route started in San Francisco, one route started in Los Angeles and Searcy’s route started in Seattle. All three groups will arrive together in Washington, D.C., at the end of the trip.
Staying in the Pi Kappa Phi house at MU was a special treat for the cyclists. According to media relations coordinator Zach Morris, most nights the group sleeps in high school gymnasiums, church recreation rooms and community centers. They will sleep in one more fraternity house, the Pi Kappa Phi house at Indiana University, during the journey.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Journey of Hope. Because the trip has been going on for so long, the organization developed partnerships in almost every city they go through, Morris said. These local sponsors often pay for a meal when the organization is in town and offer to cover lodging.
This summer the organization has raised more than $660,000. The funds go to help people with disabilities through other Push America programs. Searcy was one of the top-10 fundraisers this year with $9,785. The No. 1 fundraiser, Davis Browning, raised more than $24,000.
To raise the money, Searcy sent letters to Pi Kappa Phi alumni, called his friends and family, contacted bike groups he had ridden with before and did a community presentation to raise awareness about the trip.
"I kind of tapped all of my resources," he said.
In addition to raising money to help people with disabilities, the groups focus on spreading ability awareness. The groups do Friendship Visits almost every night, where they sit down and have a meal with local groups. They meet people with disabilities, share stories and build friendships.
Texas Christian University senior Nick Neuman completed the Journey of Hope last summer, and he said that he learned the most from being able to spend time with children with disabilities.
"One of the most interesting things was the wide spectrum of abilities I saw," Neuman said.
"I met a girl who was nine years old. She was really inspiring. Her name was Gabby, and she had just won the national championship in her division for the discus throw," Neuman said. "I don’t really remember what her disability was. We don’t remember people for their disabilities. We remember people for their personalities."
The groups also spend time educating children about people with disabilities by putting on puppet shows to teach them what disabilities are and how to be respectful.
The trip is gratifying for college students in a lot of ways, Morris said. They ride across the country, crossing through 13 states. On days they are not riding, the group does special programming, including Friendship Visits to local service organizations. In addition, the men bond and become very good friends.
"So far, I think it’s the best summer I’ve ever had," Virginia Tech student Lodovico Marchesini said.
Searcy agrees. "It has been a great summer. I've learned so much and I've had a blast," he said.