Every day one can turn on the TV or open the daily newspaper and see and read horror story after horror story of what human kind is doing to our planet and to each other. In every corner of the globe, there is violence, hate and discrimination infecting countless communities. Despite that troubled landscape, there are also countless, anonymous heroes among us who continue to make a difference and make the world a better place.
I'm continually amazed at the growing number of high school and college students who give freely of their time and talent to voluntary projects to change people's lives. Most of the young people that I've spoken with have chosen civic engagement not as an obligation, but rather as a free choice. They have done so because they want to make a difference.
Each year, a growing number of middle schools and high schools have reached out to the poor and homeless within our larger community. Some students have made a weekly commitment to work in local soup kitchens. Others have volunteered for local literacy initiatives and still others have volunteered for the county s emergency hotline called Response.
As the month of May quickly approaches, I cannot help but think of a prophetic voice in our midst, who is a genuine, courageous hero. His name is Christopher Pendergast. In 1993, Chris life changed forever. He was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Prior to his diagnosis, he was a very dynamic and successful science teacher in the Northport public schools.
ALS is a rapidly progressive disease that attacks the nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscles. Eventually, patients lose their strength and ability to move their arms, legs and body. When muscles of the diaphragm and chest wall fail, patients cannot breathe without a ventilator support. Most people with ALS die from respiratory failure, on average within two to three years. About 90% of all ALS patients die within five years. 30,000 Americans have ALS. 6,000 Americans will die this year, about one person in each 90 minutes.
Chris character and integrity propelled him to seize countless opportunities to give voice to the challenges of this debilitating disease and inspire others with his strength and determination. He decided shortly after his diagnosis that he was not going to allow this terminal illness to define his life, but rather, he was going to raise people's consciousness and awareness that blowing in the wind there is a cure.
In 1998, Chris founded the Ride for Life, to better direct awareness and fund-raising activities in order to raise money for desperately needed research. That first year was a 315 mile power wheelchair ride from Yankee Stadium in New York City to Washington, DC. The first ride was 12 years ago, it has become an annual event each May, and now the focus is on Long Island to the New York City and metropolitan area.
The Ride for Life's Mission is to raise research funds to find a cure for ALS, to support patients and their families, to raise awareness and provide the community with the latest ALS news, information and inspiration.
The real miracle each year of the Ride for Life is not the money raised, but rather the thousands of people, young and old alike, that are moved to freely share their time and talent for this most noble cause. Students across Long Island give their time to make the ride each year such a powerful success.
Chris illness caused him to formally retire from the traditional classroom that empowered his life for so many years within the Northport schools. As a teacher, he took on a new classroom -our larger community. Since his diagnosis, he has tirelessly challenged us to celebrate life and to work relentlessly for a cure. Probably most importantly, by example, he has demonstrated for patients and family never to lose hope.
In addition to his public speaking, Chris has opened his heart and his home to countless ALS victims and their families, always offering them support and encouraging them to hope. His own health in recent times has been a challenge but it has not slowed him down or impaired his courage and energy on behalf of others who struggle with this overwhelming disease.
Mr. Pendergast has been honored around the state for his tireless efforts as a champion for ALS. The New York State Senate bestowed the Achievers Award upon him because of his hard work to raise public awareness of people with disabilities.
What is so inspirational about Mr. Pendergast is his simplicity and his humility. He would never describe himself as an extraordinary person. However, he is extraordinary because of his compassion and concern for others. He leads by example. He sees his daily suffering not as a burden, but as an opportunity for blessing. His
life is a lesson in real living.
Most people stricken with life-altering illness would be solely focused on their own healing and recovery. Mr. Pendergast realized early on in his fight against ALS and his search for a cure, that he would not personally benefit from all of his efforts. However, he makes very clear in his inspirational presentations that the Ride for Life is not about him, but rather about the other 30,000 Americans stricken with ALS; without a medical breakthrough, they will not survive.
This May, as thousands of people across Long Island welcome riders from the Ride for Life into their communities, we will be reminded of one American hero, who has relentlessly, given his life for the cause of others. Countless students across Long Island will participate in preparing meals and providing hospitality for these courageous men and women in their wheelchairs, as they remind us that the American human spirit is alive. Thank you Christopher Pendergast for this important life lesson!