On Oct. 7, Ride Allegheny culminated at Smokey Glen Farm in Gaithersburg. The ride, a grueling 320-mile, four-day affair, is the single largest fundraiser for Operation Second Chance.
Operation Second Chance is a nonprofit organization providing support for the Soldiers and Marines while they are recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) and then further assisting them when they transition either back to duty or back to civilian life.
For founder Cindy McGrew, the journey to establish Operation Second Chance was a circuitous path, much like the ride that would benefit it so greatly. Like many Americans, McGrew watched as a friend was deployed on the front lines of the Iraqi War in 2004.
“I was worried. I had three sons and a daughter the same age as those that were being deployed,” she said. “I tried to stay in touch through the Internet and started hearing about guys in his unit who had been wounded.”
McGrew took particular note of a soldier who had been shot in the head. This soldier was being treated at Walter Reed and was from out of the area. His father started a blog, which she faithfully read. After McGrew came across an entry detailing “how this soldier heard ‘Taps’ being played from his hospital bed and tried to raise his arm to salute the flag,” she knew she had to do something to help.
That assistance came in the form of emails to the family offering support as they stayed here for their son’s convalescence period. Although that soldier’s family did not utilize McGrew’s offer, the experience sparked the idea for McGrew that there was a great need.
“I had brothers who fought in Vietnam; I remember seeing soldiers returning from war who did not want to be seen in their uniform. I have always been very patriotic and I didn’t want this generation of soldiers to feel that shame,” she said.
McGrew turned that fierce patriotism into a mission. Hearing of soldiers who were ambushed in an alley, she skipped formalities and went to Walter Reed in person to offer support to relatives.
“I just knocked on the door and explained that I had a friend in the same unit as their son,” McGrew said. “I told them I wanted to report back on the soldier’s condition as the unit was desperate for updates. I started going back every day after work and noticed that the family would have the same clothes on day after day. Imagine getting a call in the middle of the night and having to pack up and get to the hospital immediately. You are not thinking straight.”
She became a fixture at the hospital after work each day, and word spread amongst soldiers and families alike as she provided clothes, portable cribs, gift cards — anything that was needed.
All that assistance was a strain on McGrew’s wallet. “I realized that I had been paying out of pocket for three months’ worth of items,” she said. “Co-workers would leave $20 on my desk to buy things, but one day my boss commented that he would contribute if I was a nonprofit.”
That one comment spurred her to investigate establishing a not-for-profit organization. An attorney, CPA and other professionals offered their services on a pro bono basis, and Operation Second Chance became a reality in March 2005.
That same year, the organizers of Ride Allegheny approached McGrew about transitioning the ride from a fun challenge for bikers to a ride for a cause.
“Ride Allegheny is our largest fundraiser,” said McGrew. “They raised $32,000 the first year, and I told them if they ever reached $100,000 in donations, I would ride with them. Well, they did, and I rode for almost two days in this year’s race.”
The cause was never more apparent for the riders than this year when biker Rick Unger succumbed to a heart attack on Day Three. Just as those on the front lines face the loss of a unit member in combat, ride participants had to make the tough choice to soldier on without one of their own.
“Soldiers don’t get to cancel the next mission,” said McGrew. “They have to move on. It is a testament to the integrity of this group that they were able to do that. It is like a family on the ride, so the loss was great.”
Participants are committed to Operation Second Chance, and the proof is in the numbers. Of the $1.2 million the organization has distributed since its inception, nearly half of that total resulted from Ride Allegheny sponsorships.
McGrew is prudent with the funds, negotiating for whatever goods and services she can and relying on volunteers and a small staff. She has paid mortgages and utility bills, made travel arrangements, bought wheelchairs and Segways, outfitted trucks with hitches and even secured iPads for the vision-impaired. The organization also offers retreats for soldiers who are assimilating back into civilian life after medical discharge.
“These retreats give these men and women the chance to interact with others in their same situation and get past the fears that everyday life can present,” she said. “Many soldiers come back, ready to take a leadership role in retreats and give back to the organization.”
Giving is at the root of all of McGrew’s efforts, and her voice catches as she expresses her gratitude to those who make her mission possible. “These guys [Ride Allegheny participants] do this for families that they will never meet. It is so selfless and I am so appreciative. Kudos to all of them; it is so touching.”
Operation Second Chance is certainly touching the lives of service members, and it is providing a great service to America as well.
For more information visit www.operationsecondchance.org