‘Be a hero’

Published 9:13 pm Saturday, July 7, 2012

Members of the Suffolk Unit of the Boys and Girls Club of Southeastern Virginia stand with their counterparts from Port St. Lucie, Fla., who, along with a group of adults, have been alternating time on bicycles and in air-conditioned support vehicles on a trip to increase awareness of the need for blood donations.

Florida group rides into town with a message

Twenty-seven days and more than 900 miles after leaving their homes in Florida, a group of people pedaled into Suffolk on Saturday with the message that it’s easy to be a hero.

Bringing the “Be a Hero Bike Tour” to Suffolk on their way to Washington, D.C., next week, four teenaged members of the Boys and Girls Club of St. Lucie County in Florida stopped to talk to their counterparts at the Suffolk Unit of the Boys and Girls Club of Southeastern Virginia.

The teens, accompanied by a group of adults eager to spread the word about the need for blood donors, rode into the parking lot at John F. Kennedy Middle School to the sounds of cheering and pounding music provided by their Suffolk hosts.

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“I chose to ride, because my mother needed blood when my sister was born,” 17-year-old Joseph Nobel told the group that had gathered to welcome the riders to town.

Brittany Fray and Maya Brown lead the pack into the next stop of the “Be a Hero Bike Tour” in the parking lot at John F. Kennedy Middle on Saturday.

“My mother needed blood when she had breast cancer surgery,” said Cody Hatt, 14.

Maya Brown, 14, decided she wanted to join the ride to promote the need for blood donations without knowing much about how important it is to a community for donors to give blood. Then she needed surgery on her back, and she understood the need first-hand.

Scott Van Duzer, president of the Van Duzer Foundation and an ambassador for the Florida Blood Centers, is one of the adults traveling — and taking turns biking in the heat — with the teenagers. His foundation has raised nearly $660,000 for various humanitarian needs in St. Lucie County during the past four and a half years, he said.

Soon after he began holding monthly fundraising events at his pizza restaurant there, he said, he realized that the one thing all of the families he was helping needed was blood.

That’s when he decided to transform the fundraisers into blood drives. During the first of those drives, held to benefit a 6-year-old boy with brain cancer, the organization collected $6,000 and more than 250 pints of blood.

From there, the effort has expanded. Last year, “Be a Hero Day” was celebrated at various dates in November with blood drives all over Florida. One of the goals the group has for its ride is to take advantage of a planned meeting with U.S. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin on July 11 to convince her to lobby for “Be a Hero Day” to be established as a national event.

“If we can get the message out, I still believe we can make something big,” Van Duzer said.

Every pint of blood that is donated can help save three lives, the teens told their young counterparts at JFK, as everyone slurped popsicles and took a break from the day’s oppressive heat.

Although three of the teens are not young enough to do so, the rest of the crew plans to give blood upon arriving in Washington, D.C., according to the adult leaders.

For many of them, especially Van Duzer, the donation will be an emotional one. He and the others learned just last week that Gibbs Antoine, the young boy whose blood drive started the whole “Be a Hero” project, had died of brain cancer.

Van Duzer visibly fought to hold back tears as he talked about the boy, whose story had helped inspire the trip and the broader goal of spreading the word about blood donations to a younger generation. Even in his grief, though, Van Duzer seemed optimistic about the opportunity to influence the future.

“We hope to make it so the next generation really has a passion to change the statistics on giving blood,” he said. “This has been a life-changing experience.”