Riding for a Reason
Story by Molly Maloney, Photos by Damon Call
The motorcycle engines can be heard from far away as they thunder down the roads and freeways. Their destination is not the Harley-Davidson Café or an average dive bar. The riders have a different kind of pit stop in mind.
Bikers Fighting Cancer is a non-profit organization based in Bellingham that raises money for children with cancer and their families.
Members organize fund-raisers, go on "motorcycle runs," bring much-needed items to hospitals and occasionally focus on individual families or children. All members of Bikers Fighting Cancer have been affected by cancer in some way, whether it be having it themselves or having a family member with cancer.
Co-founder Patrick Healy says the idea for the club all started with a boy named Ray.
Healy, originally from the Seattle area, was living in Southern California in 2002. He felt a lump on his neck, but says it did not hurt. The lump grew larger, so he set up an appointment with an ear, nose and throat doctor. Doctors informed Healy that he had incurable non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Healy, then 49, began chemotherapy treatments. During one of his first rounds of chemo, he met Ray, a 12-year-old boy with brain stem cancer.
"Here I am, sort of feeling bad for myself," Healy says. "I thought, 'this kid really needs support.' I talked with his mom and dad and tried to figure out a way to raise some money for them so at least Ray's mom could stay with him while he did treatments."
Healy went on a local radio station and asked if people would pledge a certain amount of money per mile he rode his bike. He says he wanted to go to Sturgis, South Dakota, because he had never been there before, and there is popular motorcycle rally held in Sturgis every year. His doctors advised him not to go because of his own treatments, but Healy rode from Palm Springs to Salt Lake City anyway and raised approximately $8,000 for Ray and his parents.
Healy knew Ray had always wanted to be a biker and be in a bikers club, so Healy suggested they make their own. Ray thought of the name and designed the logo. Healy had two patches made for both of them to wear. Healy and Ray became the co-founders of the club. Shortly after, Ray passed away.
"When he died I went through a real hard time," Healy says. "I kind of went in the gutter a while."
Not wanting to deal with his cancer alone, Healy moved back to Seattle to be with family, eventually moving to Bellingham with his wife and children. When he was in Seattle, he shared Ray's story and met others who cared about the same ideas as he did. Together they kick-started the club again.
One of those members was Ken "Rat City" Richards, as they call him in the bike world. Richards and Healy grew up together, but had lost touch. They were reacquainted through a mutual friend.
Healy told Richards about his cancer diagnosis and about Ray. Richards says one of the first activities Bikers Fighting Cancer did together was ride to Mary Bridge Children's Hospital in Tacoma to visit children with cancer. Members cooked the children hamburgers and gave Harley rides, Richards says.
In 2006, doctors informed Richards and his family that their 10-year-old niece, Brianna, had a brain tumor. She went through operations and chemotherapy, but she did not survive.
"That's when it became something much more to me," Richards says. "It was something I had to do. Old men like us, we can have cancer and we can deal with it, but those kids need a chance to go around the block a couple of times."
Richards says that, as of now, he is still cancer free.
"Knock on wood, I'm sure my time's coming," Richards says. "I'm on the outside looking in, but Pat's been there, done that, as the saying goes."
Bikers Fighting Cancer has approximately 30 members, but the number is rapidly growing.
The club is open to both male and female riders, which he says is not common for biker clubs. It has quarterly meetings to discuss plans and events. The main thing the club tries to do is locate children who need its assistance.
Angela Pedersen, 31, joined the club a year and a half ago. Her husband is also a member of the club. She used to ride on the back with him, but recently got her own bike at the end of January.
She says she makes crafts such as "Never Give Up" dolls for the children and crafts for fund-raisers the club organizes.
Pedersen was one of the first women to join the club and says she likes the fact that it is open and equal to anyone.
"It doesn't matter whether you are male or female," she says. "We all just want to help the kids, and that's the way I look at it."
Pedersen, who works at St. Joseph Hospital in Bellingham, says sometimes people in the community look down on the club.
"They think 'oh we're just a bunch of bikers,' " Pedersen says. "But we're no different than anyone else. We have retired police officers and military, a couple people who work at hospitals and many others."
Healy says one of the things that is different about the club as a non-profit organization is that none of what it is given in donations is used for reimbursement or salary but given right back to the children.
In May 2007 Healy heard about a 15-year-old girl from Ferndale who was diagnosed with cancer two months earlier. He contacted her family immediately, and the Bikers Fighting Cancer club began visiting Chelsey Ebert at home and at the hospital on a weekly basis.
"It's not really about what we did for her, but what she did for us," Healy says. "Chelsey was a superstar, and she stayed a superstar when she was diagnosed. Alongside Ray, she was one of the bravest kids I've known."
Chelsey's grandmother, Pam Fralick, says Bikers Fighting Cancer carried Chelsey through with constant support. Chelsey passed away on Christmas Day in 2007.
Fralick says Healy called her to introduce himself and told her about his story.
"From that moment on, there wasn't a week they didn't stop by," she says. "They were there to give me hugs and support. They made sure we knew that their club was there for us, and would always be there for us."
Fralick says bikes have always been a part of Chelsey's life. Fralick's husband and Chelsey's grandfather, Gary, has a Harley that Chelsey used to ride with him.
Healy says Chelsey wanted her funeral to be a "no cry zone," and wanted a lot of noise. Bikers Fighting Cancer members escorted the procession from the church to the cemetery wearing pink on their leather jackets and bikes, he says.
Fralick says she hopes the attention from Chelsey's story will also carry on the message of Bikers Fighting Cancer, and encourage more people to join the club.
"Chelsey appreciated them-appreciated every single visit," Fralick says. "They have big hearts and give up a lot of their time. And they can't do it on their own."
Dan Marantette, a Bellingham resident who is on the finance committee for Sudden Valley, says he received a call from Healy explaining the club. Marantette rides a motorcycle and had melanoma, which is now in remission.
"This group has developed a purpose," he says. "We can be advocates for other bikers. Families who do not understand what their other family members are going through need people to talk to."
Marantette says the club is trying to become a federal non-profit organization, not just state recognized, so all donations given to the club would then be tax-free.
Richards says biker clubs can have bad reputations, but Bikers Fighting Cancer could possibly change the images.
"Even if some groups don't get along with each other or are territorial, they all are 100 percent behind our cause," he says. "Maybe this will show them that this is what we need to be like."
Healy says the club is planning to visit Mary Bridge Children's Hospital again in March, and is also talking with a family from Spokane who have a 6-month-old daughter with cancer. He says they want to raise money for the parents so they do not have to work while their daughter is receiving treatments in Seattle.
He says they will continue to bring children with cancer do-rags, chap stick, video games and the most popular item, phone cards, so they can talk to their friends all day from the hospital.
"That's what these kids need," Healy says. "They need someone to come in who knows what they're going through and can remind them that they're a kid again. When they sit on that Harley, they're kids again. If their life's cut short, we as bikers are going to go in there and let them experience a little bit of life before they go."