I love genuine niceness.
“But, Matt,” you say, “You’re a newspaper man. Aren’t you supposed to be sarcastic and cynical, not believing anything at face value?”
OK, normally you are right. But I have just witnessed something that has changed my view in many ways. I have seen a group of people who spent their summer doing something that was so incredible, so unbelievable, so nice.
On Aug. 14, 66 fraternity brothers from all across the country arrived in Washington having just completed a bike trip that started at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. For 67 days, these men of Pi Kappa Phi biked hundreds of miles in one of the hottest summers on record. The heat was so bad that the perspiration on their faces would evaporate minutes later, leaving a layer of salt they would have to peel off their skin each night.
They slept on wood floors in churches and schools. Worked so hard they sometimes fell asleep at the side of the road on a short break. Biked even when the weather forecasters told people to stay away from windows because of the intense heat.
But what was so incredible about this trip was what they did when they were not on their bikes. These men traveled across the country to work with people with disabilities. They played sports with them, hung out with them, danced with them. On their “friendship visits,” they brought a smile to tons of faces. And having each raised between $4,000 and $18,000, it was a little easier for these kids and adults to smile when they left.
They also educated. Having just biked for miles, these men put on puppet shows, teaching kids that people with disabilities are just like everyone else and deserve the same respect. These cyclists really made a difference.
At their Washington arrival, I was able to meet some of these men and get to know why they participated. Few said it was the challenge of the biking, although they each enjoyed it, grueling as it was. These men, some of whom were making the trek for the second time, did it for the opportunity to help people. They spoke about how they got to know people, to learn about their hardships and to bring some levity to their lives.
The trip’s professor, while speaking at a dinner to celebrate the trip, said having a child is like planning a trip to Italy. But when a child is born with a disability, their parents, family and friends feel like they arrived in Holland, having expected to be in Italy. Holland is different – you need new guide books and meet new people. And although everyone is telling you how great Italy is, you still have to cope with having gone to Holland instead.
But what the “Journey of Hope” did for these people and their families was, in the middle of their trip to Holland, give them a short detour to Italy.
One of my closest friends, who completed this trip and raised $17,000, looked at me upon his arrival. Cramped into a skin-tight bicycle suit, his face red from the intense heat, his legs shaved so to minimize the damage if he fell off his bike; he just looked and smiled.
He was always a do-gooder, looking for that way to help those who might need it. A designated driver all through high school, just so others could drink. Active in his synagogue and the school’s theater department. The founder of a rock-climbing club. The kind of friend your parents always want an update on, because he was such a nice kid.
But having seen what he did this summer, I have more respect for him than I ever thought I could. I am amazed at what he accomplished and genuinely proud to be in his company. We joked that I need to note that I am his friend on my resume, because my association with him is maybe one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.
The day after the trip, he asked me a question that has stuck with me. He asked, after all that I had written, all that this paper had proven about the negative stereotypes of fraternity life, had seeing what these boys did change my view? Had I finally realized it wasn’t just about the parties, the alcohol and the women?
It most certainly did. I see now what I could not see before. I walked away from my weekend with him and his brothers, realizing that they believed they could change the world, and in many ways they did.
The “Journey of Hope” shows what we are all capable of doing – taking the opportunity to be nice, not for our own benefit, but for others. It doesn’t have to be through a fraternity, and you don’t need to bike around the country to make a difference. But if we all find a way to show we care, imagine what the outcome would be – on this campus, in the District, the country and the world.
No one who watched the slide show of the journey these brothers took left the room without being touched. I know I didn’t.
-The writer is Special Projects Editor of The GW Hatchet.</i?