Originally Published: December 16, 2018 11:53 p.m.
The local VA has initiated a new program to benefit veteran heroes, aptly named Project Hero.
All it takes is the ability to ride a bicycle — and if you don’t have one, they will supply one.
Project Hero is a decade-old national organization with a mission of hosting bicycling events for veterans, as well as first responders, to provide physical activity that offers social and exercise connections able to reduce symptoms of isolation, depression and post-traumatic disorder.
The rehabilitative nature of the project is touted as a suicide prevention effort, according to officials.
Since its inception, Project Hero has built more than 200 adaptive bikes for injured veterans and donated more than 2,500 bikes to enable veterans to become cyclists.
To learn more about Project Hero, or to donate to the cause, contact PrescottHub@ProjectHero.org.
The organization, with hubs in all 50 states, has logged more than 30,000 bicycling miles in 30 states and six countries to “bring hope, recovery and resilience in support of America’s healing heroes,” according to its national website.
The local Project Hero Hub leader is Sean Hankison, a U.S. Marine who works as a VA peer support specialist and is an avid bike rider.
The first Prescott Project Hero ride with 15 veterans was on Nov. 6. It was a 10-mile ride that was followed up with weekly Monday rides of varying lengths throughout the area.
Come spring, Hankison said, he hopes to be able to go “full blast” with the program by offering various levels of riders the chance to do anywhere from a couple miles to more competitive rides up to 100 miles. He noted he has high hopes for participation in the coming year’s Whiskey Off-Road.
Project Hero has veteran riders in races around the globe.
“We just want to reach out to veterans, and first responders, who need physical activity and camaraderie,” Hankison said.
Hankison admits that after he left the military in 2014, he missed the brotherhood, the chance to be around like-minded individuals doing something that was healthy and enjoyable. So when he was offered the chance to kick-off this new group, he said he “was full blast dedicated to getting it going.”
As with anything, Hankison said it has started small with a few dedicated riders who range from a 20-something United States Air Force veteran to an 89-year-old “who will ride laps arounds us.”
“I’m excited that it’s going to help a lot of populations,” said Hankison of the group that is open to men and women alike, and they do not have to be now patients or even enrolled with the VA.
VA patients are given preference when it comes to use of Project Hero bikes and equipment — at this time there are seven road bikes and two adaptive bikes able to be borrowed on a first-come, first-served basis. Any and all veterans, or first responders, can come and be part of the weekly cycling group that hopes to grow in numbers and miles accomplished, Hankison said.
Beyond community veterans, Hankison said some of the VA’s veteran staff members have joined the group, helping forge new friendships between the two groups that enriches VA relationships.
One of the things Hankison likes to emphasize that this cycling group is open to both those who have never tried the sport to those who want to participate in competitive cycling events.
“We have tri-athletes and recreational athletes,” Hankison said. “We can accommodate those veterans who want to try it out as beginners, but we also have the capability to do very long rides.”
What Hankison likes to stress is that cycling has multi-dimensional benefits.
In a decade, Project Hero has statistics from over 10,000 veterans who have seen health improvements such that they have reduced their reliance on prescription medications, be those medications for pain, high blood pressure, mental health or recovery from injury.
“That’s huge,” Hankison said.
The Project Hero hub is operated out of the VA’s mental health program with most of the rides now starting at the VA. As the program grows, though, Hankison said they may select new locations.
“This really supports the VA’s vision of whole health,” Hankison said.
Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter @HutsonNanci. Reach her at 928-445-3333 ext. 2041.
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