When Stephen Blythe joined Pi Kappa Phi in the spring at the University of Tennessee, he was unaware of his fraternity's philanthropic focus.
The Ida S. Baker High School graduate later discovered that Pi Kappa Phi works to raise awareness of people with disabilities. Every year, fraternity members nationwide take part in a fund-raiser called the Journey of Hope.
Journey of Hope is a cross-country bicycle trek from the west to the east that raises awareness of people with disabilities and funds for Push America. Push America is a nonprofit organization that serves those with disabilities.
"It really hit home because I actually have a sister who has autism," he said.
Blythe's 22-year-old sister, Lexie, has tuberous sclerosis. It is a genetic disorder that causes tumors to form in different organs, including the liver, kidney and brain. His sister technically has the mentality of a 6-year-old.
"She'll never be able to do the things that a normal 22-year-old will do," Blythe said, adding that having an autistic relative does impact a person.
To participate in the fund-raiser, cyclists needs to raise a minimum of $5,500 and crew members need to raise a minimum of $2,500. Stephen Blythe has set a goal for himself of $7,500, but he is really shooting for $10,000. To support Blythe and donate to his Push America Journey of Hope page, visit: www.pushamerica.org, then "Support a Team Member" and search for participant:
Stephen Blythe. Click on his name to visit his donation page. Donations are tax deductible.
"I think it kind of taught me compassion for people," he said.
Blythe hopes to raise awareness and acceptance of those with disabilities by taking part in the trek, however, his main reason for participating is Lexie.
"As soon as I found out about it, I knew I wanted to do it," he said. "It's something that I've been passionate about for my whole life."
Blythe has signed up for the 2013 event as a cyclist; participants can also sign up as crew members. Cyclists do the bicycling, while crew members keep the team hydrated, work out the logistics of the route and oversee things.
In the Journey of Hope, there are three routes heading out of the west - San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle. All three converge upon Washington, D.C. Blythe will leave from San Francisco and bike about 4,000 miles total.
"I'm nervous. I've never had to do anything that physically demanding before," he said, adding that he has grown up riding bicycles. "I'm not like really out of shape, but I definitely need to start training."
The trek will take 67 days, but participants will only bike for 62 days.
Once the day's ride is over - an average of 80 miles per day - the group does not just go to sleep. They attend an event to raise awareness of their cause or have a "friendship visit" at a local center like Special Populations.
"Every city that we stop in it's preplanned that we'll stop at a local community center," he said. "We would interact with the people there."
For example, participants may play basketball with center users.
"We go to the same places every year," Blythe said. "The people at these places, they look forward to the visits - kind of the main point of it is the friendship visits - other than raising the money, that's the whole point."
Push America leaves donations with the visited organizations.
"Every time we stop somewhere, some of the money we raise, we leave it with that group," he said.
This year, Journey of Hope raised more than $600,000.
Nina Strickland, Blythe's mother, admitted that she was not completely supportive of the fund-raiser upon first hearing about it. She said the plan was for her son to work through the summer and take a couple classes.
"But the more and more I contemplated and researched it," Strickland said, adding that she soon realized that it was a unique opportunity for Blythe.
"When else is he going to be able to do this?" she asked.
The family now supports his decision to participate "100 percent."
"I'm very proud that he would want to do that," Strickland said. "I knew it touched his heart."
To participate in the fund-raiser, cyclists needs to raise a minimum of $5,500 and crew members need to raise a minimum of $2,500. Blythe has set a goal for himself of $7,500, but he is really shooting for $10,000.
"I've never really been that person who goes for the minimum," he said.
After a couple weeks of soliciting donations, he has collected $1,200.
In addition to raising funds for Journey of Hope, Blythe also is required to cover his own expenses, including his plane ticket and bicycle. Push America does provide a cycling uniform and T-shirts for during the friendship visits.
He explained that there are incentives for participants. For example, if someone raises more than $9,000 in donations, their plane ticket is free. Blythe hopes to hit that mark so he does not have to pay for his ticket.
The deadline to hit the incentive and be eligible is April 15.
He is currently looking to raise about $1,500 for his bicycle, plus the necessary modifications like foot pedals, special shoes and water bottle holder. Blythe said the total will also include a helmet and his clothing.
To raise the money to cover his personal expenses, Blythe is selling raffle tickets for a seven-day stay at a condo in Marathon Key, located in the Keys. Blythe's stepfather owns the unit, which is a timeshare and can sleep six.
The week's stay is worth an estimated $1,400. The winner can select between staying Sept. 29 through Oct. 5 or Nov. 24 through Dec. 1.
Tickets are $20 for one, or six tickets for $100.
Blythe will draw the winner Aug. 15. You do need to be present to win.
"I've sold probably 20 to 25 tickets," he said, adding that he has raised about $700 toward his personal expenses.
To purchase raffle tickets, e-mail Blythe at firstname.lastname@example.org .
To support Blythe and donate to his Push America Journey of Hope page, visit: www.pushamerica.org, then "Support a Team Member" and search for participant: Stephen Blythe. Click on his name to visit his donation page.
Donations are tax deductible.