DOWNERS GROVE – When 700 bikers rev their motorcycles to start the annual Ride Janie Ride fundraiser, it’s acceptable for the tough guys to shed tears.
“They have the hearts of teddy bears,” volunteer Sue O’Leary said. “They are there donating to help these families.”
O’Leary’s husband and her brother rode in the initial years of the annual charity ride that raises money for leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma patients, not knowing that the disease would soon hit close to home.
“Little did we know that our daughter was going to be diagnosed with leukemia,” Sue O’Leary said. “We found out Sept. 12, 2009. It’s not an easy thing to process. It’s one of those things, it doesn’t happen to you.”
For residents like the O’Learys, the growing fundraiser becomes an extended family, helping not only with a large donation toward medical bills but also with emotional support. Four years later, Kayla is doing well and will ride passenger on her father’s bike during the police-escorted, 50-mile ride.
“The organization definitely has a special place in my daughter’s heart,” O’Leary said. “She gets very excited, and she’s always looking forward to meeting the new kids. She doesn’t like the situation of how she’s meeting them, but she definitely has something in common with them.”
Ride Janie Ride began in 2007 when friends of Downers Grove resident Janie (Orlock) Bawel organized the initial event as a surprise two years after she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 42. She was struggling after a recent stem cell transplant and was too sick to make the ride the first year.
“I was in wheelchair, I had to wear a mask,” she said, recalling the first ride, when the succession of bikes rode by her home. “I could hear this loud rumbling and 500 motorcycles went by. I don’t even think I know 500 people. Now I do, anyway. It was amazing.”
Ever since, she’s wanted to pay it forward, and she and her husband have kept the event growing with the help of a volunteer board, along with director and founder Luke Pennings.
Bawel has been in remission since 2007 – the transplant from a 23-year-old German man saved her life, she said. But because it came from a man and someone not in her family, the side effects have been rough, and she is on a regular regimen of antirejection drugs.
The path has not been easy for her husband Brandon Bawel, either.
Last year, he was diagnosed with jaw cancer. The couple missed the race and lived in Texas for three months as doctors replaced his lower jaw and treated him with radiation, she said. The race continued on with the direction of Pennings and others.
The Bawels are back this year and hope to make it the biggest ride yet.
Last year, Ride Janie Ride raised nearly $100,000 for its recipients, and she hopes to surpass that figure in 2014. Like the O’Learys and the Bawels, almost all of the 19 recipient families now come back and volunteer every year, she said.
“They bring more and more people every year,” she said.