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U.S. 19 looks like a pretty big piece of road, at least until both northbound lanes are crammed with motorcycles - some 275 of them. Cars and trucks waited, and their drivers stared, as a mile-long parade of chrome, fringed leather and flames flowed through the tiny U.S. 19-State Road 24 interchange into Otter Creek Saturday morning.
These riders were looking for a little water, some shade, and a lovely picnic lunch to fortify them for another lively hour on the road. In a dicey month of storms, where no nice day is guaranteed, sunny skies smiled on Saturday's Ride to Provide to benefit the Levy Association for Retarded Citizens.
This is the third year volunteers have put on the Ride to Provide, a benefit that combines a long satisfying ride, good food and riders' knowledge that they can contribute to the operating expenses of the Tri-County's only service center for mentally handicapped adults.
Organizer Lt. Sean Mullins of Levy County Sheriff's Office, a longtime motorcycle enthusiast, said the ride had come off beautifully.
"We've just been so blessed," he said. "We couldn't have asked for a more beautiful day, or more wonderful people."
Mullins estimated that the ride had raised about $8,600, and expected to clear about $9,000 once all the remaining t-shirts were sold. Except for shirts, all the expenses for the ride, including food, shelter, sanitation and advertising were donated by sponsors. All food and shirt sales, as well as rider donations from this free event, go to benefit LARC.
Riders came from all over the Florida to take part in a run that was not only for a good cause, but beautifully organized. Despite the last-minute inclusion of serendipity riders who joined the ride en route, swelling the rider group to more than 350, the file remained orderly.
"I think riders especially like the fact that we have traffic control at most intersections, so they don't have to worry about being caught at a light and having to hurry and catch up," said co-organizer Beth Mullins.
That, and the family-friendly, no alcohol atmosphere made for a very relaxed, low-key ride. Just like last year, Bo Burkhard rode clients around the lawn on his super-trike until everyone with a road itch had the chance to scratch.
Ride organizers learn every year how to make the event better. Among this year's changes was serving food outside under huge tents, with less time in the food line and more space for everyone to spread out. There was live music, too, with Country Cousin Don playing twangy favorites from Buddy Holly to George Jones and inviting folks out of the audience to join him in a duet.
LARC staff and service providers, along with volunteers and board members, ran the food and goodie booths, and several LARC clients helped out too. The food, donated by area merchants and lovingly cooked by volunteers such as Randy Stefanelli, Danny Shipp and Thelma McCain, was delicious.
Like every fund-raiser for LARC, this one comes barely in time to try to soften yet another fiscal blow falling on LARC's clients. The Florida Agency for People with Disabilities has recently reviewed all of the state's 31,000 mentally handicapped Medicaid waiver recipients and reclassified many of those into lower service tiers.
LARC Executive Director Betty Walker fears that clients being shifted to lower service tiers will lose the ability to pay for some of their necessary services, or have to choose between adult day training and other services such as supported living and supported employment.
"I don't know how they're going to get the services they need," Walker said.
"They're cutting everything."
The money raised Saturday won't do much to help clients whose Medicare waiver has been downgraded - they must file an appeal with APD and hope for a satisfactory resolution. However, the money will help Walker keep the lights on at LARC. Whereas LARC's programs are funded by Medicaid waiver payments on behalf of clients, much of the actual day-to-day operational budget comes from fundraisers like this one, and individual and corporate donations.
"This is a shoestring operation," Walker explained.
The every-year success of Ride to Provide led Mullins to hope that next year might be an even bigger, better fund-raiser than the last three.
"Maybe next year we'll have 500 riders," he said, hopefully. "Wouldn't that just be a blessing?"
Growing the Ride to Provide, having fun and helping those who most need help?
That would be a blessing.
For more information about Ride to Provide, visit www.RidetoProvide.net.