Pay It Forward: Cycle of Life
by Matthew N. Skoufalos
When Kristen Kelly signed up for a bike ride to benefit people with multiple sclerosis (MS), the last thing she expected to discover was how the roots of the disease had grown connected to her life.
In 2012, her father, Tom, invited his daughter to join him on a 100-mile charity ride, from Irvine, Calif., to San Diego. Much of the event was a blur, Kelly said, but it was compelling to see how entire towns and groups of people supported the effort.
“I always look for mini-miracles in things,” Kelly said. “Who did I see on this ride that really had that look in their eyes? Who’s the true person that you’re doing something for?”
Supporters poured out and stood along the route. Some of the spectators decorated their cars and wheelchairs. Every 10 miles, there were hydration stations, and some even had live bands playing.
“It was so festive; everyone was so grateful,” Kelly said. “It made me feel small. I have everything I want in my life; I have everything I need. But the most precious thing is health. How can I give back to people who don’t have their health?”
The Kellys returned to the same ride again the next year, and for 2014, they’ve upped the ante: Kristen’s uncle, Bob Farley, invited them to try their hand at the BP MS 150, a 150-mile ride, from Houston to Austin, Texas. Sponsored by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the route is broken up by an overnight camp-out in massive tents with thousands of other riders in La Grange, Texas.
Kelly said the city of Austin “pretty much shuts down” for the event. She is riding with the Calpine team and has added an extra 30 miles to her route.
But the challenge of making that trek was secondary to the challenge of meeting the fundraising component of her participation in the ride. Kelly was so gun-shy about asking for money that she considered paying the $400 minimum contribution out of pocket rather than asking for support.
“I don’t like asking people for money,” Kelly said, “but someone told me, ‘You’re not asking for yourself, you’re asking for other people.’ ”
From a few tenuous emails to business contacts — Kelly works in marketing for the San Juan Capistrano, Calif.-based medical equipment refurbisher Pacific Medical – she soon discovered that asking for money to help fight MS was connecting her in very personal ways with people she didn’t expect to have been touched by the disease.
Offers of support opened up memories of aunts, grandmothers and friends fighting for their lives against the disease. She said learning their stories made her want to do more to help.
“I offered to put anyone’s name on my jersey as I ride,” Kelly said, “and that to me is just as precious as raising money for the event.”
Taking the cause to her boss, Andrew Bonin, Kelly said she knew she could count on his support. Bonin’s encouragement of volunteerism and of charitable efforts sets the tone in her office, she said. What she didn’t expect was that Bonin would confide in her that his grandmother had MS.
Kelly says she has been surprised by the support and donations. She also said she never would have known about Bonin’s grandmother if she had not asked for donations.
Although Kelly does not have a family member or friend who suffers from MS, she has watched her mother battle the pain of fibromyalgia since 2009. She said experiencing changes in her mother’s life has given her some concept of how transformative and debilitating a chronic illness can be.
“I feel like somebody took my mother away, but my mother’s still living,” Kelly said. “So, I understand where all these other people are coming from. [It’s] probably one of the hardest things about seeing somebody suffer with something, especially somebody that you love so much.”
“They’re constantly guessing, constantly trying to figure out what’s wrong with you,” she said.
To that end, Kelly is riding her mother’s bike in the 180-miler — because her mother can no longer ride a bike — “and that means a lot to me, too,” she said. Likewise, she said, her uncle is riding because his wife, her aunt, is suffering from lupus.
The event has also provided Kelly with the physical challenge of taking on a new activity. A former surfer, she picked up mountain biking about a year ago, but her trail-riding has been bolstered by a group of friends she met online. When she and her father committed to the MS rides, Kelly said they formed “a common bond” that revitalized her relationship with her parents.
“Even though I was 33 years old, I got to feel like a little kid and see them be proud,” Kelly said. “The whole feeling is kind of an emotional experience.”
Kelly added that she “probably wouldn’t have continued on with this” without her father’s encouragement.
“In some ways I feel like I can be his [support],” she said. “When you’re 60 years old, you can’t do this kind of stuff, and in some ways I’m pushing him to go beyond himself.”
While she says she will continue to seek “mini-miracles” in the Houston-to-Austin ride, Kelly said that buying into the event has already paid personal dividends on multiple levels.
“Having us do this for a good cause, going to another state to do it … I think this whole incident has helped me address the fear of asking people for money, the fear of going out of my shell, the fear of going somewhere for a good cause,” she said.
For more information about the fundraiser, visit goo.gl/WEoEFs. To make a donation, please Click Here.