by Barbara Van Reed
WHITINSVILLE – Dozens of teams of riders, runners, and walkers - young and old, first timers and veterans - took part in the 29th Annual Valley Friendship Tour on Saturday, May 31. Though it started a bit drizzly, it turned out to become a perfect day for every level of participation in Alternatives' major fundraising event of the year. The tour includes 25- and 50-mile rides through the Blackstone Valley, 5K and 10K walk/runs, and a mile-long walk through historic Whitinsville.
Dozens more Alternatives employees, volunteers, and friends joined the festivities at the Whitin Mill Plaza to support the programs that help more than 2,000 people with psychiatric or developmental disabilities live successful lives in the community. The Valley Friendship Tour has raised more than $1.6 million for Alternatives' employment, residential and day programs. This year's goal was $180,000.
Area businesses have been a key component of the annual tour's success, not to mention its founding 29 years ago. Tim Hare, whose Team Harbro participated in the 5K, recalled how he and Alternatives' Founder and Executive Director Dennis Rice planned the very first event. “I had a bicycle shop at the time,” he said, “and we called it the Alternatives Bikeathon. Then Gerry Gaudette got involved and helped develop it into a major fundraiser.”
Scott Rossiter, chairman of the board of Lampin Corp. and long-time Valley business booster, also recalled the first time he participated in the Valley Friendship Tour. “It must have been 25 or 26 years ago, when Gerry Gaudette and Frank Bartucca embarrassed me into doing 50 miles. I remember being so scared, and now we do it all the time.”
This year Grafton optician Charlie Atchue joined Scott's Team Tenderloin in the 25-mile ride, along with Paul Oparowski, a graphics designer with Lee Print and Design, and Jim Kenary, a financial advisor with Morgan Stanley.
Scott regularly invites people to participate in the Valley Tour. His mission, he says, is education, to create an awareness of the things that Alternatives does. This was the first time out for Paul and Jim, who were impressed with the scenic route. Paul promised to do the ride again next year. Jim said, “It's a beautiful ride and a great group of people.”
Scott noted that while he rode the 25-mile route this year, by the time he bikes back to his home in Grafton he'll have done 50 miles.
Gerry Gaudette's legacy in the Valley Friendship Tour lives on with Gerry's Gang, now led by Lee Gaudette, president of Gaudette Insurance Agency, completing the 25-mile bike tour. The team had a dozen or so members this year, said Lee. Commenting on the weather, he noted “it was a little cool in the beginning,” but it turned out alright.
Another local business participant was the Friendly Discount Liquors staff, which ran the 5K, and one of them, Kazu Iijima, completed the 25-mile bike tour as well.
Though the rides are not competitive, among the first cyclists to come in from the 25-mile ride were Will Darling, who is the recreation coordinator for Alternatives, Luke Lagenere, from the adult learning center, and John Merrill, president of Fidelity Bank.
First back from the 50-mile ride was Chip Kent, a carpenter from Upton. He's done the ride a half-dozen times, he said, and does it because “it's fun, it's a great cause, it's local.”
Many Alternatives staff members ride and run and walk the tour as well. Donna Mcleod Prior, director of individualized support services, for example, did the 25-mile bike ride, a first for her. Steven Pionthowki, director of IT, also did the 25-mile tour for the first time. “I upgraded from the one-mile walkaround,” he quipped. “I figured I'd challenge myself.” Another was Lisa Jeronymo, director of human resources, who also did the 25-mile route.
Persuading newcomers to participate in one of the events is part of the fun, it seems. Liz Mirabelli, who works in Alternatives' marketing and development department, assembled a team comprised of her fiancé Dan Nye, his three brothers, and their friends.
Bob Soucy, who's wife works at Alternatives, ran the 5K for the fourth year. He does it to support the program, and “we have a great time doing it.” Bob works for the fire department in Winchendon.
The final and possibly best attended part of the Tour is the mile-long walk through downtown Whitinsville, which gives everyone, able or disabled, a chance to participate. Volunteers pushed many wheelchair-bound individuals along the route and returned with smiles on their faces.
By a little after noon, Alternatives' Director of Community Outreach Tom Saupe was on the lookout for any runners or bikers who were “still out there.” Tom stresses that the tour is for fun, it's not a race to see who comes in first, and he doesn't' keep score. He does, however, make sure that no one is lost. “We account for everybody that goes out and make sure they come back.” He tells about some stragglers two years ago. “They stopped at every yard sale along the way.” And then there were a couple of staff members who stopped to have lunch.
After their ride or run, participants could work some of the knots out at the Whitinsville Wellness Center and Spa booth where Ron Allen was set up to do chair massage. In the next booth, therapist Bruce Thomas provided therapeutic massage. Bruce himself was a member of a team with Whitinsville Attorney Henry Lane and furniture maker Nick Hollibaugh which started the 50-mile ride at 6:00 a.m. instead of 8:00 a.m. so that Bruce could be back by 11:00 to do the massage therapy.
The kids craft table was hosted by Pamela Murphy, owner of the Artist Pallete, and her student Jackie Shenian. The band Mid-Life Crisis performed a spirited repertoire throughout the event.
Major sponsors for this year's Valley Friendship Tour were 401KQuote.com, Fallon Health, The Shop at Whitinsville, and TD Bank. A complete list of corporate sponsors is at www.alternativesnet.org. Alternatives is located at 50 Douglas Road, Whitinsville, 508-234-6232.
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