The woman with cerebral palsy was out of touch and disengaged, her cognitive function limited as much as her speech.
FIU graduate Sanjeev Udhnani ‘12, seated next to her for a “Friendship Visit” organized by the United Cerebral Palsy Center, was concerned.
“She just seemed like she was in her own bubble,” Udhnani recalled from his visit in the summer with Leslie at the United Cerebral Palsy Center in Pittsburgh.
She carried a schedule in her wheelchair that listed coloring as one of her activities, so Udhnani downloaded an iPhone application that allowed her to color different images.
He watched her light up, so he offered to watch Spongebob with her on Netflix. Her caretaker said it had been a long while since she was so engaged.
“It hit me then, that I really had an impact on someone,” Udhnani said. “These were little things that no one had done in a very long time.”
Leslie was just one of dozens of individuals Udhnani met on his 3,800-mile bicycle ride to raise awareness for people with disabilities, a journey he took immediately after his spring 2012 graduation.
Udhnani represented Pi Kappa Phi in its national philanthropy, Push America, in a ride called Journey of Hope. He raised close to $7,000, surpassing his fundraising minimum of $5,500 to ride, then began the journey with 26 other cyclists and nine crew from universities across the country.
Their goal was to raise awareness for and interact with the special needs population through programming and what they called “friendship visits.”
Their stop in Pittsburgh was one of many along the way.
“My parents were against it,” Udhnani said. “They were like ‘Find a job. Don’t go spend two months of your life traveling. Why can’t you just volunteer at a hospital?’” Udhnani said. “But I thought, ‘I’m free, young, and able-bodied. Why not do it now?’”
Throughout the 67-day journey, riders learned about different disabilities, dedicating each day’s ride to someone they met. The team rode eight hours most days, beginning June 8 at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Udhnani, pushed by girlfriend Priti Gulley, eventually won the support of his parents.
“He was reluctant, but I knew it was something he wanted to do,” Gulley said, “and it was one of those lifetime goals he had for himself.
“So I said, ‘If it’s something you want to do, you should,’” said Gulley, who attends the University of Central Florida.
Udhnani sought help from his undergraduate contacts and created a fundraising competition that earned $1,500 in support from sororities. To make up the rest, he emailed sponsors, and convinced friends to donate, comparing it to buying him a cup of coffee.
Gabe Villanueva, a fellow FIU graduate, recalled how he and Udhnani, on two separate and rides in the summer, built a foundation for their summer adventurers.
“Sanjeev and I shared fundraising ideas and tips on training, what to pack, and what to expect,” he said. “We also were able to rely on each other during out trips in times when we were annoyed or mad. Having each other to vent made the experience much easier.”
Villanueva rode as part of Push America’s Gear Up Florida, a ride that began May 9 in Miami and ended May 25 in Tallahassee.
Udhnani considered the last day the hardest emotionally as he had flashbacks from the entire trip. It was the leg from Maryland to Washington, D.C., where, on August 10, the riders arrived to the familiar faces of family and friends.
Stephen Blythe, a teammate from the University of Tennessee, rode with Udhnani the day before the final leg.
“We didn’t get to ride together until the second to last day of the entire trip, from Cumberland (Maryland),” Blythe said. “I learned more about Sanjeev in that last day than I did the whole trip.”
Blythe said the hardest part of finishing was knowing that all 35 members of the team would never be in the same place again.
For Gulley, it was the wait.
“I was suffering from the worst anxiety ever,” she said. “I just wanted to see him. The day before, he was in Maryland, and I thought about taking the metro to Maryland thinking, ‘I have to see him’ but his project manager said it would mean more to wait.”
Udhnani hadn’t seen friends or parents since February, and Gulley since May.
“We made it… It was the best moment of my life,” Udhnani said, recalling other accomplishments from his undergraduate career, including as a vice president of SGA in 2012.
“I always used to think [that moment] was when I had won the SGA election . . . and getting dunked in the fountain in our collegiate career.”
His only communication on the ride was through late night phone calls, blog posts, and his pick-ups from the six mail drops stationed along the way for supporters to send encouragement and supplies. Gulley did not miss a single mail-drop.
Udhnani’s ride was consistent with his shift from student government to philanthropy in his senior year at FIU.
Prior to that point, he gave what he calls “standard participation” in Relay for Life, Dance Marathon, and Push America as a member or volunteer.
But he said he didn’t feel he had done enough, so the Journey of Hope was the capstone of his final collegiate push to give back.
Udhnani is back in Miami on the job hunt, but the summer ride was his wake-up call.
“Someone gave the example that the pain and fatigue we felt when riding the bike is a lot like what people with disabilities feel like,” he said. “Except we have the option of getting off the bike.
“People with disabilities feel the same pain, but worse.
“They can’t quit or shut down.”
Sanjeev’s blog is: http://sanjeevjoh.wordpress.com/
–By Aura Altamiranda