May 2015 Volunteer of the Month
In early 2015, Philadelphia Magazine named ALS Express “one of the best charity bike rides in the Philadelphia area.” The ride is fun for all ages and abilities and all riders get to spend the rest of their day enjoying the rides at Morey’s Piers in Wildwood, New Jersey. One other thing that makes the event so well-known and respected is how well organized and safe it is for all of the riders.
Perhaps the biggest reason that riders feel safe at ALS Express is the Greater Philadelphia Chapter’s Volunteer of the Month – Jim Burke.
From the inception of ALS Express, Jim Burke has been on hand to provide essential health and safety for the bike ride so that all riders can focus on their ultimate goal of cycling to raise money for ALS research. When Eileen Frank was diagnosed with ALS in 1999, her family rallied to her side and organized the first ALS Express bike ride in her honor.
They knew the cause, they planned the course and most importantly planned logistics for rider safety. That work began by contacting family friend Jim Burke who worked as a Mobile Intensive Care Paramedic with Virtua Health.
That was over 15 years ago and Jim Burke has been helping with the ride ever since.
All of the incredible Greater Philadelphia Chapter volunteers have such a visible presence at events, at advocacy, and working with patient care, but Jim may be considered the Chapter’s most unsung hero. In fact, just finding a picture of him in the 15 years’ worth of photos of the event is difficult. That’s because Jim usually doesn’t have time to pose for pictures during the bike ride. He is far too busy providing aid to riders, a service that gets more encompassing as the ride grows.
“That first year I helped, there were 16 riders. That was a lot easier than it is today,” laughed Jim as he reflected on his many years volunteering for the ALS cause. “We borrowed an ambulance and followed all of the riders to ensure course safety. The increase in ridership makes safety more important than ever before.”
Most of what Jim does at ALS Express is considered preventive care. His job is to keep people from getting sick or hurt. He makes sure that everybody has helmets, prepares riders before the ride begins on all safety procedures, monitors everybody along the route, and renders aid as needed. It was a challenging enough job with just over a dozen riders in the first ride, but Jim’s responsibilities have increased exponentially as today hundreds of riders from across the region participate and make ALS Express one of the best events in the Greater Philadelphia region.
Along the way, Jim has provided care for issues big and small, from making sure people stay hydrated and taking care of cramps to more serious issues like falls and accidents. He makes sure that the minor issues don’t become major and that major problems are taken care of immediately so that they don’t become more serious.
That speedy and consistent care is why riders come back year after year as the ride has exploded in popularity.
Jim’s work, along with the efforts of the Frank family, has grown with the ride. While he once performed almost all of the care services, he now oversees and coordinates a more comprehensive safety plan with a team of professionals.
“It’s rewarding seeing how it has grown,” said Jim. “As people learned about the ride, the degree of rider changed. There are now start points for riders of many levels and the more novice riders need help preparing as well. Some expert cyclists will ride 75 miles without stopping and they know what they are doing. We are there for all of them.”
Jim finds the turnout and support at the ride rewarding, but the most important part is what drew him to the event in the first place, and that is to help families affected by ALS.
As a health care professional, Jim understands ALS far too well. He’s kept up to date on the research since Eileen Frank’s diagnosis and makes sure to talk to other ALS families about the services available to them. “One of the most important things I do is educate people about The ALS Association,” Jim said. He takes his role as an ambassador for the ALS cause very seriously because he has seen the disease up close and knows what it can do to a person.
Yet after volunteering for the cause for over 15 years, Jim is not focused on the negative. He doesn’t dwell on the devastating effects of ALS. Jim Burke, after all this time, is driven by hope.
“I absolutely have more hope with all of the people getting involved,” said Jim. “Finding a cure is a team effort. Nobody should be on this journey alone.”
For over 15 years, Jim Burke has been a part of that team effort, making sure that no rider is ever alone and that every person with ALS has an ally all along the way.