Congressman David Jolly listens to participants Aug. 14 during a visit with veterans in the Ride 2 Recovery program at the Seminole City Park.
SEMINOLE – On May 1 there were no cyclists involved in the Project Hero Ride 2 Recovery in Pinellas County. Now there are 30 and more taking part every week.
It is all about helping veterans get back into society and recover from injuries or mental trauma suffered while serving.
Project Hero is part of the Ride 2 Recovery program. HERO is Healing, Exercise, Rehabilitation and Opportunity. It is aimed at helping returning veterans.
Ride 2 Recovery was begun in 2008 when a therapist with the VA decided veterans needed to be more active as a way to speed up the healing process, both physically and mentally. The program steadily grew across the country and has now come to Pinellas County.
Each Thursday afternoon at 5:30 p.m. the riders gather at the Seminole City Park, next to the Pinellas Trail.
“We’re open to both veterans and the public,” said Mitch Lee, Project Hero ride leader. “We have participants who are amputees and those with traumatic brain injuries.”
Lee explained that many of the injured vets cannot ride conventional bicycles so they have specially designed bikes to suit their disability.
“One thing is certain, we leave nobody behind,” he said. “We help one another, we stay together. The object is to have a fun time for everybody.”
Tracy Livingstone of Seminole is a retired captain from the Adjutant General’s office. She is legally blind and requires what is known as a recumbent cycle to ride. The cycle is laid out in such a way that she is practically lying down with the pedals down by her feet. She explained she is able to see with her limited vision while in that position. She says the weekly ride has helped her a lot.
“It gets me out of the house and among new friends,” she said. “I’m not worried about falling behind because the other riders all help; some are even assigned to make sure I make it up and down the overpasses alright. I can’t get off and push my bike because I have balance issues connected to my blindness.”
Livingstone explained that the rush she gets after a bike ride is like the feeling a runner gets after a long run.
“I would describe it as a runner’s high,” she said. “In fact I’m always stronger on the way back than during the first half of the ride.”
Yazmin Coll-Serrano of Pinellas Park is another regular rider in the Ride 2 Recovery program. She rides a tandem bike with her daughter Yazmari Mas-Coll. A native of Puerto Rico, Coll-Serrano is a retired flight nurse in the Air Force.
“This program and these people are amazing,” she said. “In just two sessions they trained my daughter to be my co-pilot so we can compete in tandem bike rides all over the country.”
The two had just returned from the Valor Games in North Carolina and will soon be heading for another competition in Ohio.
Another regular participant in the weekly ride is Neil Haslem of Largo. He stands out from the rest because of the red cyclist shirt he wears, which identifies him as a retired member of the British Army. He was lined up ready to make his second run with the others and speaks highly of the event.
“This is a way to give back to the community,” he said. “It is a worthwhile project. I served in Northern Ireland and while I’m not able to help the veterans there, I can help those who are here. This is a fun event.”
Among those with Ride 2 Recovery cyclist shirts was John Goodwin, who actually travelled from Colorado for the event. He works for the program and is impressed with what he sees in Seminole.
“We’re seeing success like this all over,” he said. “We’re trying to build programs everywhere. I’m just here to help however I can. Back in April this program didn’t even exist.”
He described one of the more pressing needs of the organization.
“We need bicycles,” he said. “We can get the people but we need something for them to ride. Often we’ll go to the local law enforcement agencies to see if they have any lost or stolen bikes that haven’t been claimed and they can donate.”
Perhaps what drew Goodwin to the ride that particular day was the presence of Congressman David Jolly, R-Indian Shores. Crucial to the success of the Ride 2 Recovery program is the VA and the rehabilitative program there. Event organizers invited Jolly to educate him about their program and get his support for VA involvement.
Jolly was encouraging.
“This brings together the best part of our community, this is what it is all about,” he said. “You are creating an environment of opportunity for veterans, empowerment for veterans. Programs like this bring a quality of life back to veterans.”
Then he spoke the words the organizers hoped to hear.
“You have my commitment to work with you, to get the VA more involved,” he said. “Our veterans have access to the VA programs; we have to make sure they get more and timely access.”
Until then the riders will continue to gather, and they hope grow, for their weekly 15-mile ride on the Pinellas Trail. It is part of raising awareness for the needs of wounded and disabled veterans. The rides begin at 5:30 p.m. every Thursday and everyone, veteran or otherwise, is invited to participate.