Each year, more than 100 bicyclists join together for a weeklong bike ride to honor those who have lost their lives working in emergency services.
“We ride in honor of people who were killed in the line of duty or from causes related to doing our job,” said Sussex County Paramedic Barry Hoke, who has been coordinating the group of riders for the last three years.
The National EMS Memorial Bike Ride started in 2001. The ride has four routes, and the Delaware Winged Riders will be participating in the East Coast Route, riding from Boston, Mass., to Alexandria, Va., from May 16 to May 23.
“It’s not a race; it’s a ride,” said Hoke. “It’s to raise awareness that these are dangerous jobs. We’re out there protecting the public and providing a service that’s dangerous.”
Each year, the Delaware Winged Riders ride in honor of Sussex County Paramedic Stephanie Callaway — a mother, sister, daughter, coworker and friend — who was killed in a line-of-duty death seven years ago, while tending to a patient in the back of an ambulance. Callaway was 31 years old and left behind two boys. She was a paramedic with Sussex County EMS, whom coworkers said loved her job and taking care of her community.
The Delaware Winged Riders will also be riding in support of Delaware City EMT and firefighter Michelle Smith, who was killed a few months after Callaway. Smith was a 29-year-old mother, wife and daughter who was struck and killed by an oncoming car while treating a patient.
“We’re always riding for them, but we’re riding for everybody else, too,” said Hoke.
The Delaware Winged Riders will ride with the Delaware Muddy Angels, a local group of emergency medical personnel, EMTs, paramedics and nurses from Sussex County that participates in the National EMS Memorial Bike Ride.
It is their mission to raise public awareness about line of duty deaths, honor all EMS workers that continue to save lives despite dangerous conditions, and promote healthy lifestyles for EMS providers through physical activity and good nutrition.
Hoke said it costs approximately $1,000 per rider to make the trip, and the group is currently participating in a number of fundraising efforts to raise that money. This year, one nurse, two EMTs and four paramedics from Sussex County will ride.
As part of those fundraising efforts, the Delaware Winged Riders will host its first Paint Party at the Millville Volunteer Fire Company on Wednesday, May 13, from 7 to 9 p.m. Tickets cost $35 per person, and Hoke said seating is limited. Those who attend will get to paint an American flag with the Statue of Liberty.
The BYOB event will also feature a 50/50, door prizes and raffles. Food will also be available for those who wish to eat.
“People can come out and relax and just have a good time,” he said.
Those who cannot attend the paint party but wish to still support the ride may make a tax-deductible donation to Sussex County Paramedic Association (SCPA). A 501(c)4 receipt can be provided upon request for tax purposes.
On May 9, the group will host a Pedal Off Party at 16 Mile brewery in Georgetown, starting at noon, and featuring a fire department vehicle rescue competition. The party will include food, raffle items and a 50/50.
“It’s kind of our sendoff party, to get everyone pumped up for the ride.”
During the 600-mile bike ride, Hoke said, riders and their support team — known as “wingmen” — will stop at different fire stations along the route and honor those emergency services personnel who have died in that state.
“When we stop, the names of those who are fallen are read and a bell is rung one time for each individual.”
Hoke said their support person, who’s also a rider at times, is part of the FDNY in New York City.
“They start at Central Park on the north side. We get a full police escort, and they shutdown Times Square for our support vehicles. Lights and sirens go on, and the guys riding in the parade get to ride through. They’re escorted all the way down to Staten Island, where they get on the ferry across to New Jersey.
“They said there was nothing more heart-wrenching and grabbing and emotional than the ride through New York City with all those bikes in front of you and to see everyone on the Jumbotron.”
Hoke said that, on any given day, the memorial ride has 80 to 150 riders.
“You can ride the whole week; you can ride a day, two days, three days, whatever,” he said. “Some people continue to come back. Sometimes, people don’t know anybody who’s being honored but they ride to raise awareness. Some people participate as riders, others as support staff. Some riders, if they get tired and don’t want to ride anymore, they can become supports and help out.”
Riders vary in experience levels from beginner to advanced, and Hoke said it’s wonderful to see that, no matter where you are, as an emergency services provider, you’re part of a brother and sisterhood.
“We’re family, no matter where we are,” he said. “It’s interesting — you’ll have an experienced rider out there that could probably go fly down the road and leave everybody behind. And sometimes they do that. But they also know that there are new riders out there…
“It’s really encouraging just to see two experienced riders slow down for someone who is struggling and put their hand on the small of your back and help them up that hill or make that last 5 or 10 miles. It shows you how much of a tight-knit family we are. It’s not about winning a race. It’s not about getting your name out there. It’s about the people we ride for.”
Hoke, who has never before ridden in the memorial ride, has worked as a wingman for the last three years and in 2014 was named Bike Support Person of the Year.
“I’m hauling everything — bananas, water, protein bars,” he said, noting that wingmen also go ahead of the riders to help set up for food stops and rest stops.
He added that each support team works just as hard as the bike riders, noting that, while he never got on a bike last year, he lost weight during the ride.
Everyone who participates in the ride is a volunteer who has taken time off from work to participate.
“This isn’t just us. Our local group is just one part of this ride,” he said, adding that people come from all over the country, and at times the world, for the ride — “people who have come from Italy. Two years ago, our little state of Delaware had the most people from one state riding. We’re the second smallest state, and we had the most people riding.”
Hoke said Sussex County Paramedics, comprising approximately 110 emergency services personnel, have almost 25 years of service in the county and are proud of what they do for the community.
“There’s a long history here, and we’re providing advanced medical care before these people are getting to the hospital. Some of them are heart attacks and strokes,” he said. “We’re actually giving drugs and reading EKGs, calling the hospital ahead of time and cutting down time in the emergency room.”
The weeklong ride is moving and emotional, said Hoke, and he encouraged the community to support the Delaware Winged Riders and emergency service personnel in honoring those who have fallen.
“Each rider and support person carries two dogtags of all the people we’re honoring, with their name, the department they belonged to and their date of death. You carry those dogtags all week. Sometimes, along the way, if we stop at a station or rest stop, and those persons’ families are there, the rider then presents one of the dogtags to the family.
“Everybody has their story — why they ride or who they ride for, what keeps them coming back. It’s a phenomenal group of people.”
To purchase tickets to the fundraisers, make a donation, or learn more about the ride, call Barry Hoke at (302) 448-0123, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Lars Granholm at (302) 236-2444 or email email@example.com. To learn more about the National EMS Memorial Bike Ride, visit www.muddyangels.com.