September 2, 2008
By Lane Murphy
"We really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,"says Justin Brown, a senior from El Paso, Texas.
Last November, Justin and four Baylor classmates listened as a dear friend confessed he had attempted suicide only the night before. Stunned, they--like just about any college student put in that situation--didn't know exactly what to do. But they agreed that something had to be done. Something big. Instead of ignoring the issue or coddling their friend, the group wanted to give their troubled friend something to live for.
The friends created a group on social networking Web site Facebook.com to get the word out about suicide prevention and vowed that if a quarter-million people joined it, they would bicycle from Baylor to Anchorage, Alaska. Disregarding the fact that they had one bicycle between them, little money and no details, they stepped out in faith.
A mere 13 days later, the online community was 250,000 strong. The group had made a promise to one friend, but their personal gesture had quickly grown into an international crusade. And that was only the beginning.
Things snowballed in the months that followed. The group set up a charitable organization called the Alive Campaign to promote awareness for suicide prevention. In preparation for their journey, the Alive Campaign members studied suicide prevention, held fundraisers and received national media attention, all while keeping up with their classes and other commitments. They received a $15,000 donation from FordDirect.com to purchase bicycles and other supplies for the trip, and a professional Web designer gave his time to create a Web site to help them promote their cause (a gift estimated at $5,000).
On May 15, the five Baylor students set forth on their 73-day, 4,500-mile crusade.
"When we started this trip, we told ourselves that if the Lord provided a way, we would go," says Schertz, Texas, senior Kyle Ferguson. "When we left, realistically, I thought we'd be fortunate to make it out of Texas, and that reaching California would be a worthy goal."
One day at a time
Miles of uphill mountain roads. High winds and scorching heat. Flat tires. Construction. Road debris. High-speed traffic with narrow or no shoulders. Because of the group's lack of cycling experience, challenges like these were among the group's chief concerns.
Only Justin owned a bicycle or had more than basic cycling experience before the team left. Senior Andi Nakasone had once attempted a trip sort of like this--attempting to bike all the way around his home island of Okinawa, Japan, several years earlier--but "I made it about 60 miles, and then I had to call my dad to come get me," he says sheepishly.
Despite the inexperience and through all the trials, the group worked hard to stay on schedule, since speaking to groups along the way about suicide prevention was one of the trip's priorities. Most days, two members of the group would be on bicycles at a time, with the rest riding behind or ahead in the van. If the team was pressed for time, the van would drop off a pair of cyclists, drive ahead 10 to 25 miles and drop off the next pair, then wait for the first pair to catch up. Every single mile of the trip was covered on bicycle by at least one rider.
"We want people to know we are serious about what we're doing," says San Antonio senior Alyson Erikson, the group's lone female. "When it would be easy to rationalize and cut corners, the group meshes and overcomes the challenges of that particular day."
Riding their bikes through some of the most beautiful landmarks in America--the still snow-capped Rocky Mountains, the deserts of Arizona and Utah, the Golden Gate Bridge, Yosemite National Park, the cool, salty air of the Oregon coast--awed the group.
I met up with the Alive Campaign for a day in Neotsu, on the central Oregon coast, 2,560 miles and 42 days into the trip. On the 90-mile stretch into Portland, we passed fields of ripe fruits, stopped for fresh-picked strawberries at roadside farms and took an unexpected gander at the Spruce Goose, housed at the Evergreen Air and Space Museum that no one in the group knew existed outside of McMinnville.
"We've seen so many amazing things and met many incredible people. It becomes a bit constant; after awhile it's a blur," says Nathan Lloyd, a senior from Itasca, Texas.
"But what's so great about biking is it slows life down to a point where you HAVE to stop and smell the roses," says Alyson. "You HAVE to look around you and appreciate that life is so much more than the daily routine."
I took a seven-mile stretch into Portland, despite having never biked like this before, and discovered that cycling is much harder than it looks. Even without any steep inclines, I struggled to stay up with Andi. The constant pressure from the handlebars felt like when someone surprises you with a much firmer, longer handshake than you expect. Maybe I was holding on for dear life. Even though I rode for only 25 minutes, my legs churning and lungs burning, I felt as if I'd been sitting atop a flagpole for a week, thanks to the hard, tiny seat. With traffic flying by, the tailwinds from trucks pulling you off balance, this sport isn't for the faint of heart. But then, neither is talking about suicide.
Spreading the message of hope
"Our friend's lifelong dreams, his plans, they weren't coming true," says Justin, "but we have to get outside ourselves. When our dreams, our plans aren't working out, there's always more purpose to our lives than we think."
Each time the group shared their story, they saw that their crusade was making a difference. They spoke with families who had been rocked to the core by the loss of loved ones, to adolescents struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts. They heard more people's stories and gained insight to help even more people have hope.
Marta (Mayhew) George, BBA '91, was one of many Baylor alums who joined forces to help the Alive Campaign spread the message. Responding to an e-mail from the Baylor Network, George lined up a chance for the Campaign to meet with the Yamhill County Suicide Prevention Coalition in McMinnville, Ore. George also notified local media, provided room and board at her Portland home, and arranged for a cycling club leader in Portland to guide the group across the city to her house.
"When my husband fell ill a few years ago, so many people reached out to us," says George. "I just wanted to give something back and support what these people are doing."
Almost every day for the group consisted of riding, every night spreading the message of hope in various ways. From those discussions, a beautiful thing happened. Suicide was no longer a topic that people didn't know how to handle. Instead of ignoring what is a widespread but largely unaddressed tragedy in our society, these students instigated change, one person at a time.
"These are the moments that we want to share our hearts with everyone we know because these are the most important facets of our being," says Justin. "There are some things you just need to go out and do, and do with all your heart."
The five Baylor students helped more than just those they met in person. With modern technology, the Alive Campaign spread worldwide, garnering over 300,000 members on Facebook. Thousands in this online community are helping each other cope with life's stresses and talking candidly about suicide. Some posts are memorials to lost loved ones. Many others give insight about how to take an active role in the lives of friends and family experiencing suicidal thoughts. The Alive Campaign has been featured in numerous media outlets, including national coverage from CNN, MTVU and K-LOVE radio, plus countless local newspapers and newscasts. In addition, film and digital media majors Andi and Alyson are making a professional film documenting their trip using high-definition cameras on loan from Baylor, which will spread the message of suicide prevention even further.
Out on the road, each day called for new strategies in order to arrive at speaking engagements on time. The five sacrificed their personal desires for the good of the group, though often sick, weary or injured, always working together for something bigger than themselves. Outside of their main purpose, details concerning where to go, eat and sleep were constantly on the minds of the group.
The van went through the ringer. Nathan's parents, Dwight and Marquita Lloyd, loaned the Campaign the 15-passenger van from their Ford dealership in Itasca. Halfway through the trip, the 10-year old vehicle had already had new brakes, new front suspension and two flat tires. The back passenger doors stopped opening, so its passengers were forced to file awkwardly through one door, clown-car style. It became stuck in Arizona desert sand, and was towed more than once.
After cycling 80 miles up Highway 101 through Oregon from Florence to Lincoln City, Nathan discovered the van wouldn't start--again. As the van was towed away, the owner of the Ester Lee Motel handed Nathan $80. The man was at the Bible study the previous night at Lincoln City Church of Christ, where the team shared their story. He mentioned how whales travel by his family's oceanfront motel on their way from Alaska to Mexico.
"That these young people are making a trip of similar distance on bicycles for such a great cause is amazing," he says. "I joined their Facebook group last night just to show my support. I'm completely behind what they're doing."
Questions arise, support arrives
The group needed support from a host of friends and family throughout the trip as the quintet lived on a day-to-day basis. They met new people, visited unfamiliar places and believed in something bigger than themselves. They also stayed connected to their encouraging friends and families, most of whom weren't completely supportive at first.
Understandably, the parents had doubts. What exactly are you doing? Is it safe? Feasible? What about your summer school or job? Do you even have a bicycle? Are you disciplined and athletic enough for this?
Although the students had few answers, they eventually earned their parents' support. The trip literally could not have happened without their families.
"Once they began to read about the Alive Campaign in the news, they knew what we were doing was legit," says Justin.
Marquita Lloyd, Nathan's mother, and Sonia Brown, Justin's mother, helped the group find places to stay and share their message. The group daily updated the Campaign blog (alivecampaign.blogspot.com) from the road. When Internet access was limited, Alyson called in the blog post for the day to her mother, who then transcribed it so followers of the group could keep up. The photos they uploaded made the trip that much more real to the Web site's visitors. In addition, each of the families provided much-needed prayer and support for the cause.
"God knows we had our struggles, but because of our wonderful mothers, we had a warm meal in our stomachs and a roof over our heads at each stop," says Alyson.
The travel and strategizing were taxing, but everywhere they went, the five were amazed by the goodness of people.
"We will never get used to people being so nice to us, perfect strangers continually giving us food, shelter and donations," Alyson says with a measure of humility.
"I've always been a bit of a cynic, but this trip has restored my faith in humanity," says Kyle, who grew up a military brat, moving 14 times during his youth. "The way so many people who don't even know us have opened up their homes, their cupboards and their pocketbooks has been incredible."
People at Baylor assisted the group along the way. One of them, Dr. Susan Matlock-Hetzel from Baylor Counseling Services, aided the group from the beginning, training them to communicate about suicide with others before leaving on the trip. She also helped them deal with issues as they came up on the road.
"Baylor is about bringing out the strengths in people and flourishing in those God-given abilities," says Matlock-Hetzel. "If this is not an example of what that looks like in real life, I don't know what is. They each bring such different gifts to this, but they've grown into a mini-community that continues to get stronger and stronger. Baylor should be very proud."
Supporting others along the way
The quintet certainly met plenty of interesting and eccentric folks along the trip, like the southbound elderly man in Arizona who asked them how close he was getting to Sioux City--South Dakota. They stopped to change flats for stranded families. They talked with international tourists biking along the West Coast. And they gave a lift to a man named Michael, a traveling missionary with all his possessions strapped to a bicycle, who has been on the road for 13 years.
"It turns out, most people think we are the ones who are different. I guess not everyone rides bicycles from Texas to Alaska," quips Justin.
The stop-and-go nature of the trip called for constant modification of plans, sometimes limited telephone and Internet access, and most of all, patience.
"Sometimes we want to be home, see our families and be lazy during our last summer before college is over," Alyson told me while I was with the group in Oregon. Some gave up study abroad opportunities and summer jobs, and some will graduate later than scheduled because of this trip.
By Day 42, the group had gained perspective about how much they had grown, both as a group and as individuals. Because they didn't know exactly what was going to happen each day, Justin says the closely-knit group learned to let the little things go.
"More than anything, we've learned patience. Our arguments aren't as intense. We all have various goals, from making it to Alaska, to making a great documentary, to biking a certain number of miles. But our common goal--to promote suicide prevention--has remained the same, and that helps us keep whatever else happens in perspective."
A final detour
Amidst all the unexpected turns this trip took, the group had known this day was coming for a couple weeks. An injury had limited Kyle to driving the van for the past few weeks when I joined up with the team. He had hoped to get back on his bike, but his body did not heal. As I left the team to fly home from Portland, so did Kyle.
Still, Justin, Alyson, Andi and Nathan pushed on into Canada, through the wilderness of the Yukon Territory and on to their final destination, remarkably, right on schedule--but the road did not want to let them go. Just 10 miles from Anchorage, a construction detour had the group turned around. After consulting a map, they sped the final 10 miles in 20 minutes--fittingly, a group record--just in time to meet family members and a news crew at the finish line.
"Tears were shed, and everybody hugged each other," says Justin. "It's like we won a million dollar jackpot. We received messages from school and home, people offering their congratulations. We couldn't be more thankful to our friends and family. Our lives are changed forever and for the good. Smiles were plastered on all of our faces. This is what it means to be Alive."
They have been through so much together and relied on each other, like true friends do. Symbolic of the cause they are championing, they do life together. All along the way, people have been inspired and equipped to help others. One life has been saved, and others will follow.
"I hate to use a catch phrase like 'they embody integrity,' but when I think about what it means to be a man or woman of integrity, to be a God-honoring example, the Alive Campaign members are the first people I think of," beams Matlock-Hetzel. "They inspire me to want to be a better person, and I feel blessed just to have met them."
The campaign did not end when the group reached the Anchorage city limits on July 27. All five students returned to Baylor this fall, where the demands of the final year of the college experience will largely dictate how they spend their time. However, the online community has been established, and the group hopes that the momentum will lead others to help keep the campaign going strong. Andi and Alyson will begin editing their documentary. The group has hopes to establish a high school and university chapter system to bring a more unified effort to suicide prevention. If the infrastructure continues to take shape, the thousands who have been inspired by this group will continue to break the silence about suicide.
No matter where life leads these incredible Baylor students, their 4,500-mile crusade from Waco to Anchorage has taken them so much further than any odometer can count. They've proven life is truly worth living--that it's great to be Alive.