For the first time in Team Fox history, a single-day event raised $1 million -- and then some! "It was unbelievably poignant for us to hit $1 million the year that my father, our co-founder, passed. What he wanted most in life was a cure for Parkinson's," says Cindy Woods Theberge, Executive Director of the New England Parkinson's Ride.
Cindy recalls the feeling of needing to do something when her brother Chris was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease at age 41. Their mother, Edna Woods, resolved to take action on behalf of her son, an avid cyclist. "Get out of the way of a mother with a sick child, no matter the age," says Cindy. With Edna at the helm, the Woods family founded the New England Parkinson's Ride in Old Orchard Beach, Maine in 2008.
"We didn't go in with an idea of how it's supposed to be done. If you do it with the right heart and spirit, people are going to embrace it and allow you to embrace them," says Cindy. It's a message she shares with other Team Fox members: “We did not have a background in event planning or fundraising or even cycling, but we had the passion, we had the heart. That's what made this happen. Everyone can do something. Just put one foot in front of the other and get started! You'll figure out the rest as you go.”
The New England Parkinson's Ride started with 35 riders and raised $27,000. From there, "The Ride grew organically and the best part is that our riders grew with us," says Cindy. Year after year, nearly 80 percent of participants are returning cyclists or are recruited by a returning cyclist.
In 2013, the New England Parkinson's Ride became a 501(c)3 and the Board of Directors was officially assimilated into the organization. Three of the Board members have Parkinson's and everyone has a connection to the disease. "They are instrumental in helping us strategize and secure sponsors," says Cindy. “By 2014, it became clear that there were sponsors out there and that we could really improve the look and feel of the Ride.”
In order to grow the event, Edna and the late Bob Woods sought a new venue where the Ride could start and end in the same location and participants could stay to enjoy entertainment and activities. With the support of sponsors, the Woods family worked with the Town of Old Orchard Beach and agreed to lease and help repair the old semi-pro Ballpark in order to host the Ride there. “Now we have a band, booths, music and stuff to keep families busy while cyclists are out. It’s so much more of a family atmosphere. It’s good for us and good for the town,” says Edna.
Even through all of the expansion, 100 percent of the money raised by cyclists still goes directly to Team Fox.
Over the years, one challenge was in retaining teams after the loss of a loved one with Parkinson's. "I started reaching out to those people to say, do it for your kids, your grandkids, for everyone else here," says Edna. Today, Cindy says, "People coming back to honor family members is a big part of who we are."
One year, an impending rainstorm threatened to delay or even cancel the Ride. "Chris is one of the last people to come in every year. The rain was starting to fall and by the time he crossed the finish, it was an absolute downpour. But, 15 minutes later, there was a humongous double rainbow over the finish line," remembers Cindy.
Since then, a large banner with a rainbow hangs at every event with "Our Heroes" written across the top. Participants post pictures of a family member that has passed away that they're honoring by riding. "That banner is full every year which is sad, but it's something that's really connected everyone," says Edna. "People cry but it empowers them that they can go out and do something," adds Cindy.
To date, the New England Parkinson's Ride has raised over $4.5 million for The Michael J. Fox Foundation and in 2018 alone, attracted nearly 1,100 cyclists from 29 states, 3 provinces of Canada and even a couple virtual riders in New Zealand!
“People can’t wait to get back and see their friends. Those living with Parkinson’s and those who love them have a place where everyone understands,” says Cindy.
"They know they're helping fund research for themselves as well as for everybody else," says Edna.
So, what's next for the New England Parkinson's Ride? "All we see is a cure. The Ride will end a year later, because we are going to have one big party!" says Cindy.