Men inspired to ride bicycles from Los Angeles to Chicago to battle autism
Four years ago, Jeff Spaetzel and his wife were dealt a devastating shock. Their 4-yearold daughter Amber was diagnosed with autism. From that point on, their lives changed.
Autism is a processing disorder due to integration issues with key components inside the
brain impacting the ability to rapidly manage uncertainty and derive meaning from
change and integrating novel information which creates devastating limitations in
communication, social functioning, problem solving, flexibility, adaptation, and emotional
development. For example, imagine walking out the door of a house and being
besieged by everything from the trees to the cars on the street, so much so that you are
unable to remember what it is that you were doing and become lost in the moment. This
ultimately results in the person retreating into his or her own world. Autism usually
strikes children some time in the first two years of life. While the exact cause of autism
has not been pinpointed researchers agree autism is a genetic disorder triggered by an
unknown environmental factor.
According to the Autism Society of America, diagnosis of this disability has quadrupled
since 1987. Between 2001-2002 there was a 701% nationwide increase in children
being diagnosed with autism and between 2002-2003 there was an 870% increase. The
Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published revised figures this summer that autism
now affects 1 in 166 births an increase from 1 in 250 now making it the fastest growing
disability in the United States.
The hurdles for the family were difficult to get over then. Those obstacles with language
and learning continue to surface, just as they do for the over 100,000 families in the
United States who struggle to help children with autism develop into typical healthy
adults â€œDealing with the diagnosis is a little easer, but I still cry,â€ said Spaetzelâ€™s wife
Heather. â€œI was reading an article about siblings with autism and how it changes the
sibling connection and that set me off, but we do things that are so good for our family,
and we appreciate things that I donâ€™t think other people appreciateâ€. Frustrated with the challenges and lack of support from local and federal agencies, Spaetzel thought of what could be done. And he thought of what other families in the
same situation face. â€œWhen it comes to autism, it is easy to focus on the negative,â€ he
said. My attitude was pretty badâ€. After three years of complaining Spaetzel decided to
focus his energy on doing something positive to combat the disability.
A silver lining of sorts was found when Spaetzel began to examine his own life for a
chance to make a change. He thought about strengths and weaknesses as well as
seizing the opportunity to share with others and make a difference.
â€œWhy not leverage my strengths and abilities by riding a bicycle from Los Angeles to
Chicago in April 2005 with the purpose of raising funds for Cure Autism Now?â€ Spaetzel
thought. He is joined in this endeavor by fellow co-worker Adam Dabrowski and
professional photographer Ryan Collier who has volunteered to choreograph the ride.
Their journeyâ€™s beginning will coincide with Autism Awareness Month.
Cure Autism Now (CAN), the organization that Pedal for a Cure benefits, is a foundation
founded in 1995 to bring together parents, researchers and physicians who have
committed themselves to accelerating the pace at which research, outreach and
education are conducted.
Dabrowski has no kids of his own but has participated in seven epic rides including two
of the AIDS rides from St. Paul to Chicago. â€œIâ€™ve always wanted to do a ride of this
magnitude, but when it comes down to it, itâ€™s always better when you have a reason for
doing it, and to be able to help somebody, and do it in a way that is fun for youâ€
Dabrowski said. Adamâ€™s wife Heather has volunteered to drive the Support and Gear
vehicle for the cross-country ride.
Until the spring of 2004, the farthest Spaetzel had ever ridden was 55 miles in a single
day. That all changed in April when Spaetzel did his first 100+ mile ride down the IM&M
canal with Dabrowski. In early June, the duo rode their bicycles from Sugar Grove, IL to
Clinton, IA on an unsupported ride in the rain pedaling over 120 miles in a single day
only to head back to Sugar Grove the following day. The two repeated the ride again in
Spaetzel and Dabrowski are up by 5am each morning to train for the ride. They have
ridden in all conditions including heat, wind, rain, and cold preparing them for the
conditions they expect to face on their 2,400-mile journey. â€œWhat is really ironic about
this whole thing is that until October 2003, I had no idea I would be doing a ride or a
project of this magnitude. Prior to that I never exercised and was around twenty-pounds
overweight.â€ Spaetzel said. â€œA year ago if anyone told me told ride a bicycle 200+ miles
in two-days, I would have said you are nutsâ€”why would I want to do that?â€ The first
lesson Spaetzel learned is that a lot can change in a year!
The bicycle-riding enthusiasts chose the words desire, determination, awareness,
generosity and inspiration to represent the ride, and they hope those ideas will move
others to get involved through donations of either time or funds to help the cause.
â€œPedal for a Cure is about helping children and families suffering from autism,â€ Spaetzel
said. â€œWe plan to raise $100,000 on behalf of Cure Autism Now, increase autism
awareness and educate others about autism.â€ â€œThe $100,000 goal represents the financial burden autism puts on families, the 2,400 mile ride represents the distances many families travel to get help, and only two riders
as opposed to a group represent the isolation and lack of support for those with autismâ€
Spaetzel and Dabrowski will fund the 2,400-mile ride themselves in order to make sure
every penny raised goes to Cure Autism Now. They will spend as many nights of the
month-long journey in campsites or in homes along the route that is 400 miles longer
than the Tour de France. â€œThe difference between a ride and a journey is that on a ride
you know where you are going to end up each day. We are hoping we will meet people
in each community we pass through that will be interested in putting us up for a night
before we travel on to the next town.â€ We will be working with the autism community,
churches, community groups, fire departments and police stations to make this happen.
A lodging plan of this nature is like taking a â€œleap of faithâ€ Spaetzel and Dabrowski
Pedal for a Cureâ€™s route will pass through nine states and 28 cities. The pair of riders is
also interested in working with school districts so that students can track their journey
and learn about the unique challenges involved with the ride. The journey is set to begin
April 17, 2005, in Newport Beach, California (just south of Los Angeles). From there,
Spaetzel and Dabrowski will travel through Riverside, Indio and Blythe, California;
Phoenix, Cottonwood, Flagstaff and Holbrook, Arizona.; Gallup, Grants, Albuquerque,
Santa Rosa and Tucumcari, New Mexico.; Dalhart, Texas; Guymon, Oklahoma.; Liberal,
Dodge City, Great Bend, McPherson, Abilene and Topeka, Kansas.; St. Joseph,
Missouri, Mt. Ayer, Des Moines, Iowa City, and Clinton, Iowa, and Sugar Grove Illinois.
The ride will end at Soldier Field in Chicago Illinois at the Cure Autism Now â€“ Walk Now
event tentatively scheduled to take place on May 22, 2005. Last year, the event
attracted over 3,000 walkers.
Increasing autism awareness is perhaps the most important part of the ride, Spaetzel
said. Spaetzel and Dabrowski will talk to just about any person or group that will hear
them out about the mission.
This grassroots approach to the journey â€“ focused more on knowledge than money â€“ will
ensure that any and all donations collected get to the right place, Spaetzel said. It also
allows individuals and companies that may not be able to contribute money to help in
their own ways and enables the riders to build relationships and interact with
communities throughout the United States.
Generosity has come from some surprising places in the initial phases of the campaign.
Bike manufacturer Trek donated a top-of-the-line touring bicycle for the trip. Pearl Izumi,
a manufacturer of cycling apparel has agreed to outfit Spaetzel and Dabrowski for the
ride. Aquascape Designs has helped raise over $5,000 towards the cause. US
Software Professionals donated the â€œPedal for a Cureâ€ website, and T-Shirtspot.com
donated over 50 t-shirts to the cause. The Dupage Childrenâ€™s Museum will be hosting
the duo on February 17
for Autism Night from 5pm â€“ 7pm to promote the ride. A large study conducted a few years ago followed young adults on the autism spectrum
that had high IQâ€™s and good language. 50% of these bright individuals went on to higher
education after high school. Yet at the time of the study, only 12% were employed; only
3% could live independently, over 65% had almost no social contact outside of their
family and none were married or involved in a significant emotional relationship. â€œOur
desire is to raise hope for families and children struggling with autism and do something
about these types of statistics,â€ Spaetzel said. â€œYour heartâ€™s got to be into it; and ours
are in the right place.â€
The pair will be sharing this desire with others, raising awareness and funds for their
chosen cause. The greatest desire, however, for both of these men is to help make a
difference in the search for a cure.
â€œFrom a standpoint of hope, each mile pedaled and every dollar raised will get us that
much closer to a cure,â€ Spaetzel concluded.
Spaetzel and Dabrowski both believe there is a special force behind the project.
Spaetzel met Dabrowski in December 2003 while working out in the fitness center at the
office. Dabrowski approached Spaetzel about the ride. After talking it turned out that
both Spaetzel and Dabrowski graduated from the same school, both married their high
school sweet hearts, and their spouses share the same name â€“ â€œHeatherâ€. Stranger yet,
the duo later discovered the bicycle donated to Spaetzel by Trek Bicycles was shipped
to and configured by a bicycle shop owned by Adamâ€™s brother-in-law.
Using his technical experience and background Spaetzel created the â€œPedal for a Cureâ€
website at www.pedal4acure.org. Spaetzel and Dabrowski invite everyone to visit the
website to track the ride, buy a t-shirt, sign their guestbook and/or make a donation.
Mile-markers can be purchased for as little as $10 and can be dedicated to anyone
special from a grand-parent to a pet. The two riders will even send an email notification
once the mile marker is passed.
Donations, well wishes, and other correspondence can be sent to:
Pedal for a Cure
Cure Autism Now
PO Box 852
Sugar Grove, IL 60554-0852
All donations are tax-deductible and checks should be made out to â€œCure Autism Nowâ€.
Please consult your tax-advisor.