Gear Up Florida 2023: Breaking Records and Changing Lives

On Wednesday, May 10, the Gear Up Florida team arrived in Miami, Florida, preparing to embark on what would be a 15-day, 955-mile journey across the entire state. The team, led by Project Manager Jonathon Lewellyn, Iota Rho (Western Illinois), began their journey in Miami and biked across the state, stopping along the way in Boca Raton, Clewiston, Fort Myers, Sarasota, Clearwater, Tampa, Lakeland, Orlando, Ocala, Gainesville, Jacksonville and finally Tallahassee. At each stop, the men had the opportunity for a friendship visit with a local organization that works with people with disabilities, and The Ability Experience was able to grant more than $15,000 in grants to 13 organizations.  

While on the outside looking in, cycling seems to be the focus of the trip, to the men of Pi Kappa Phi in attendance, the heart of the trip is the friendship visits. Friendship visits are stops along the route with local groups that support people with disabilities. These groups roll out the red carpet, anticipating the event each year and waiting with excitement to sing, dance and feel joy with their new Gear Up Florida friends. Though these visits usually followed a day of biking 75 miles or more and came in conjunction with sleepless nights and early mornings, “I would do it over and over again and will continue to participate for as many years as possible,” said Jonathon Lewellyn.  

Jonathon, a returning second-year Gear Up Florida team member, was initially inspired to work with people with disabilities in high school where he volunteered with Easter Seals, Wisconsin. Entering college at Western Illinois University, he knew he wanted to join a fraternity, but he made the decision to join Pi Kappa Phi after learning about The Ability Experience and the clear values he already shared with these men.  

Gear Up Florida began in 1997, and since then more than 500 Pi Kappa Phi men have participated in some capacity. The team raises an average of $80,000 annually to benefit people with disabilities. This year the team was comprised of 30 team members from 18 different chapters. The team exceeded expectations, far surpassing that amount with a record-breaking $225,000 raised overall by team members and corporate sponsors.  

Initially, fundraising for the trip felt self-indulgent to undergraduate member Jose De La Vega, Iota Beta (Texas-San Antonio), who said, “As I fundraised I felt like I was raising all this money for me to go on this trip, but as I got close with my brothers and was able to see the impact of these donations and our time spent on this journey, it was a whole different experience.” While he had always been a cyclist and had an interest in the summer events, it never seemed within reach of Jose until he was pushed and encouraged by a staff member while attending an Ability Camp. Similarly, alumnus Richard Pierce, Alpha (College of Charleston), said, “On the surface when you first sign up, the trip means you must do all this training and learn to bike and while the trip sounds fun, that’s all you think it’s going to be about. It’s so much more than that, and I can say honestly that these were the best two weeks of my life, and I miss it. There’s nothing like having the camaraderie of the team surrounding you, and it is an experience I think everyone should allow themselves to have.” 

As an alumnus with commitments like work and family, Richard felt that he might have let his chance to do an Ability Experience summer event pass him by.  As an undergraduate student who worked to support himself years ago while still in college, taking a summer off to participate was not an option, despite his interest. He was pushed by Greg Buehner, Theta Theta (Iowa), who told him to sign up for the event, incentivizing him by committing to be the first donor to his page as well as a promise that the event would change Richard’s life. After two of his best friends and chapter brothers committed to sign up on the condition he participated, his decision was made.  

Jose, Richard and Jonathon, who are confident their teammates would all agree, share the sentiment that participating in Gear Up Florida, or any Ability Experience, is more than worth the time and effort it takes. When asked to choose a favorite moment of the trip, none of them could pick just one. From the sheer joy of a room full of people of all abilities singing karaoke to being inspired by a woman who teaches that art can be accessible to all, to reuniting with the people they met on prior friendship visits, to the way brothers who had met only weeks prior supported each other and stopped each other from giving up during moments on the road when continuing to ride seemed impossible; there are many moments and memories that will stay with this team long after the sunburns, tans and exhaustion from the cycling have faded.  

“For those who are thinking about participating, my only question for you is why haven’t you signed up already? It is truly a special experience and I wish I could sit down with anyone considering participating to convince them of that myself,” said Richard, “I will forever cherish these memories and my Gear Up Florida experience.” 

The application to participate as a crew member or cyclist in Gear Up Florida or other 2024 summer events is currently open to alumni and undergraduate members and can be found here.