Nipomo-based Cal Fire engineer John Byrne wanted to do something to help his younger sister, a Bay Area resident who broke her neck in a swimming accident seven years ago, rendering her quadriplegic with some use of her arms.
Byrne said his 22-year-old sister, Lauren, is very independent. She studies at a local community college, plays wheelchair rugby and travels with family and friends. But not having a car has limited her ability to maintain her independence and transfer to a four-year college.
So Byrne, 26, an avid cyclist, threw out an idea on Facebook in April. What if he rode across the U.S. to raise money to buy a car and install hand controls for Lauren? What did people think?
The response was overwhelming.
“People started donating before we even launched,” Byrne said. “By the next day, (a friend) created a website with the photos and the story at that point I didn’t know if I could get the time off work and even ride that far. It was literally just an idea, and within 12 hours it was basically a reality.”
In the past few months, Byrne has trained as much as possible. Though he spent much of the summer traveling to fires throughout California, he brought along an indoor trainer to ride after work. On his days off at home, he’d ride from Nipomo to Santa Barbara.
On Sunday at 7 a.m., Byrne will start pedaling his Kuota bicycle about 3,600 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Brooklyn Bridge. He plans to ride 100 miles a day and stay at fire stations along the route.
Cal Fire Capt. Mike DeLeo and Darrell Sales, a Santa Clara Fire Department engineer, helped coordinate Byrne’s route, much of which follows the same path as Race Across America, a long-distance cycling race.
Tony Hernandez, a Cal Fire captain based in San Diego, will follow Byrne in a support vehicle. Two fundraising dinners are planned this week — one from 5 to 10 p.m. Friday at The Edwards Barn, 1095 Pomeroy Ave. in Nipomo, and another from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Niles Veterans Hall, 37154 Second St. in Fremont.
Byrne estimates he needs to raise about $63,000 to buy a Honda Element and have it converted for Lauren. All the money from donations online and at the dinners goes directly to buy the vehicle for Lauren; the cost of the ride itself is being covered by corporate sponsors.
“I’m a different person today because of that post, and it’s changed our family’s life,” Byrne said. “This is the most meaningful thing I’ve ever been involved with in my life.”
Cynthia Lambert and Gayle Cuddy write the South County Beat column on alternating Wednesdays. Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.