Riding for Hope
On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Kate Lemke ’08 found herself standing shoulder to shoulder at the Pentagon with a four-star general and emergency personnel who responded to the attack.
They — along with other first responders, survivors of suicide attempts, veterans and mental health care professionals — were part of a 20-member team of cyclists on the 9/11 Ride of Hope. Organized by the Quell Foundation, the five-day, 250-mile bike ride sought to break down the stigma around mental health.
Between the ride’s starting point in New York City (Lemke is pictured above at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum) and conclusion at the Pentagon, riders made daily stops at fire, police and EMS stations to provide education on the warning signs of mental distress as well as resources to find help. The ride raised nearly $225,000 to fund the foundation’s first responder mental health preparedness and training program.
Lemke, an experienced cyclist (pictured at far left), joined the ride in memory of her boyfriend James Michael Martin Sarabia, a firefighter and advanced EMT who died by suicide in 2019. “He was the kind of guy who looked up at the stars. He loved life,” she recalls. “But our first responders walk into traumatic situations every day and don’t get to process that.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, firefighters and law enforcement personnel are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, and EMS providers are 1.39 times more likely to die by suicide than members of the general public.
“The ride seemed not only like a great healing opportunity for myself but also an opportunity to bring awareness to the challenges first responders face,” Lemke says. “It felt like a way to have hope and purpose.”
Throughout the ride, Lemke was able to share her boyfriend’s story (putting a face and a name to the statistics) and deliver an important message about the need to look out for each other.
“We have opportunities to be good listeners and advocates for each other,” she says. “There are so many of us facing challenges, but we should take the time to listen to each other and reach out if somebody is presenting signs of struggling. They may not be capable of reaching out, so it is important that we reach into others.”
Lemke says the ride brought on a range of emotions, from deep sadness to laughter as well as the comfort and vulnerability of sharing stories. Not only have lifelong friendships been formed, but so has a lifelong mission.
“I’m excited to work to bring the Quell Foundation’s Ride for Peace of Mind to Tucson next June,” says Lemke, a Wisconsin native who now resides in Arizona. “We’re going to keep working to break down the stigma, lift the mask and get support for first responders.”
To find help for yourself or someone you love, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255. More information is available at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Warning signs include:
• Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
• Looking for a way to kill themselves, like searching online or buying a gun
• Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
• Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
• Talking about being a burden to others
• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
• Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
• Sleeping too little or too much
• Withdrawing or isolating themselves
• Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
• Extreme mood swings
Source: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
This article appears in the winter 2022 issue of Alverno Magazine.