Hardly more than a year ago, Thomas Brown, 34, and Zachary Chipps, 31, quit their jobs and vowed to bike across the country by 2012 to raise awareness of suicide. Brown and Chipps both lost their brothers to suicide.
The bike team rode into Santa Cruz last Saturday on the third day of their 7,000-mile, 214-day bike tour.
The team called their pilgrimage Revolution Inspired by Self Evolution (RISE) Phoenix. It was created to spread awareness about resources available to people affected by suicide and to create a space for open dialogue on the topic of suicide.
“Creativity, compassion, community and collaboration will always rise above competition,” Chipps said. “By creatively expressing who you are within your community and supporting those around you, we hope that will bring about healing for those who have lost [someone] due to suicide, as well as prevent people from dying from suicide by getting rid of that isolation and forming a community.”
Brown and Chipps began the bike tour on March 1 in San Francisco and plan to finish in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. on Sept. 30. The team will stop in 100 cities in 21 states, where they will reach out to local suicide awareness agencies like the Suicide Prevention Service (SPS) in Santa Cruz County. The pair are also planning to make a documentary about the journey.
The two decided in August 2010 to make the journey across the United States in honor of their brothers. Six months later, Brown called Chipps and said, “OK, let’s organize this.”
“When I made that phone call, we knew we were going to do it in 2012,” Brown said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s set up everything and see where we are at.’ It was, ‘We’re going to do it, so let’s get what we can.’”
They began a partnership with La Frontera Suicide Prevention Center in Arizona, and with the help of friends, reached out to other suicide prevention centers and bicycle shops for donations to fund their mission.
Stops on the bike tour include Arizona, where Brown’s brother was laid to rest, and Nebraska, where Chipps’ brother rests.
“Two suicide survivors decided to travel cross-country for suicide awareness,” Brown said. “We both like to call it a cosmic giggle. You couldn’t write a story as beautiful as that.”
When the team started the trip, they said they had no idea how much support would be awaiting them in Santa Cruz.
“[People] want to come in to join support groups — they are interested in becoming volunteers for our crisis line just because [Zachary and Thomas] came here,” said Bonnie Sultan, the assistant director for SPS. “[They] gave that inspiration to people.”
The team has been using social media outlets to spread awareness of their cause. Brown, a photographer and video artist, has been filming the beginning of the journey and posting video blogs following the team’s experience. RISE Phoenix also creates and sells necklaces that have bike chains hanging on them to symbolize unity for the cause. The money from the chains will help finance the tour and the documentary.
Brown said he hoped people would walk away with at least one message from the bike tour.
“Realize that not only are you not alone, but you have beautiful potential to create whatever world you want for yourself,” Brown said. “Above all, [apart from] the outside criticism, don’t let that inner critic get in the way — because that’s going to be the most daunting.”
SPS and RISE Phoenix have been working together to spread suicide awareness throughout as many branches of the Santa Cruz community as possible, including the student population.
“For students, [suicide] is the third leading cause of death, which is very frightening for us and it’s something that doesn’t have to happen,” Sultan said. “We provide education and provide a safe space for people to come and get help.”
Sultan said she hopes movements like this will eliminate a stigma around
talking about suicide.
“We are really in awe of [Brown and Chipps],” Sultan said. “We don’t want them to leave Santa Cruz.”
RISE Phoenix raised only 5 percent of their budget before the start date. Many community members have volunteered to open their homes to the team. The San Francisco Coast Guard offered shelter for the team and Sultan said “perfect strangers” in Santa Cruz County welcomed Brown and Chipps into their homes.
The team left Santa Cruz for the next leg of their tour in Pacific Grove, Calif. on March 5.
“We have no idea what’s coming up next,” Chipps said, “but if it is anything like this, it far surpasses any expectations.”
To see Thomas and Zachary’s route, donate to the cause or follow them on Facebook or Twitter, go to risephoenix.org.