LAKELAND – It may sound like an odd pastime: spending a long afternoon at a highway rest stop, watching the traffic go by.
But for Tony Wangrycht and others who work at his insurance agency, Foresters, it’s become a genuine passion.
“They asked me to do this, and I’ve been involved ever since, and that was nine years ago,” Wangrycht said, adding that as many as 60 to 70 volunteers go to the rest stops.
But as insurance agents, they don’t go to watch for possible traffic accidents and then see if the victims need or desire insurance, or to sell policies at a local spot that gets plenty of visitors. Their mission is entirely different: the local volunteers from Foresters, a member-based insurance organization, have been assisting The Mid Florida Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society during the annual Bike MS fund-raising event, where bicyclists get people to make pledges, with the funds going toward a cure for the illness.
According to the Mayo Clinic, Multiple sclerosis is a “potentially debilitating disease in which your body’s immune system eats away at the protective sheath that covers your nerves. This interferes with the communication between your brain and the rest of your body. Ultimately, this may result in deterioration of the nerves themselves, a process that’s not reversible.”
Symptoms vary, and people with severe cases can lose their ability to walk or speak.
For nearly two decades, Foresters volunteers from Polk, Pinellas, and Hillsborough counties have been establishing corporate teams and providing expertise and leadership to The Mid Florida Chapter. The contributions of Wangrycht and other volunteers got recognized this year when they won the “Corporate Star” at this year’s annual meeting in honor of their commitment to this cause.
The Bike MS fundraising event has been Foresters’ community event of choice for the past 18 years. Although it began as a small group of volunteers serving lunch at a rest stop, it’s grown considerably, and now up to 70 volunteers provide refreshments, encouragement and assistance at the rest stops on Interstate 4 and other highways along the bike route, on both days of the tour. That will include the upcoming Walk MS: Lakeland, to be held on Saturday, March 10 2012.
“My people out in Lakeland are already aware of the walk and the date,” Wangrycht said. “What we do at the rest stops — besides dishing out food, drinks and refreshments — is we’re out there to encourage the riders to keep on and go from there.”
Foresters is a fraternal life insurance company, which used to have an office in Tampa, although now the 140-year-old company has its corporate headquarters in Toronto. As Wangrycht noted, besides doing business together, “We have a social side, which is where the volunteers come from. On the business side, to our members, anyone who has purchased a Foresters life insurance product of annuity, if they get diagnosed with MS, we give them a $4,000 grant to help cover medical expenses. That’s one of the reasons we’ve always been involved in this. Besides it being a fun event, we’re doing this for a very good cause. There’s new medicines and treatments coming out every day. Symptoms now are less than what people have had in the past.”
It’s also an exciting and exhilarating experience for the cyclists, he added.
“I see people now with MS that ride in the Bike Ride every year, and they feel that by riding it helps their motor skills,” he said. “I think they’ve come a long way in the time I’ve been involved in the fight against the disease.”
It’s also become a great social event for the people who participate, he added.
“I think the cyclists look forward to seeing the same face year after year,” he said. “We’ve got 1,500 to 1,600 cyclists out there . For the cyclists, it’s very positive. From what I understand from most cyclists’ events, MS puts on the best event in Florida.”
The volunteers like Wangrycht spend the afternoons at the rest stops to give those cyclists a break, and some encouragement.
“We show up with a variety of refreshments like water and Gatorade and those types of drinks, and a variety of snacks right at each of the rest stops and the lunch stops,” he said. “We’ve improvised over the years and managed to make it work for us. It’s just something that we enjoy doing. When I was first involved, there were only 600 cyclists. We’ve more than doubled that in recent years.”
To learn more, email Wangrycht at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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