On Sunday, dozens of bikers and other community members got together to ride through the town in solidarity and to raise awareness about suicide prevention. The first ever Ride for Suicide Prevention and Awareness saw 38 motorcycles and more than 20 other vehicles drive from Soldotna to Nikiski and back again.
The event was organized in just a few weeks by a group of five bikers who decided they wanted to make a difference in their community.
Kyle Lee is one of those bikers, and he is all too familiar with the impact of suicide on the people left behind. Lee lost his best friend to suicide two years ago. That tragedy was compounded when he lost another close family friend to suicide this past spring. After the friend’s funeral, Lee sat with his friends and fellow bikers Jeremy Gill, Brad Conklin and Jerry Winfrey at Ammo Can Coffee in Soldotna and asked a simple question: “What can we do to stop this?”
The bikers had gotten to know each other through Lee’s Let’s Go Ride Facebook page, a local group where motorcycle riders can coordinate going for rides together. So when they were figuring out how they could make an impact on the rising rates of suicide in the country, the guys of Let’s Go Ride decided to do what they do best: go for a ride. That afternoon, the bikers made plans to organize a big ride through the central peninsula to bring attention to suicide, fight the stigma that surrounds the issue and make themselves available as a resource for those who may be struggling with suicidal thoughts.
“When you have something like (suicide) happen, there’s a sort of ripple effect throughout the community,” Lee said. “The majority of the people we’ve talked to have been affected by it in some way.”
At first, Lee and the others had low expectations for turnout, but word spread quickly throughout town and on social media. Before the day of the ride, Lee had said that if 10 bikers showed up and they could reach one person with their message, the event would be a success in his book.
“The community and the riders are the fuel for this fire,” Lee said before the ride. “And holy cow has it blown up.”
On the day of the event, Lee and the others were overwhelmed with support. Close to 150 people showed up in the parking lot of Hope Community Resources in Soldotna. Starting at the community center, the motorcade headed north on Kalifornsky Beach Road, turned onto Bridge Access Road and the Kenai Spur Highway toward Nikiski, made a stop at Nikiski Middle/Senior High School for a group photo, and headed back down the Kenai Spur toward Soldotna. The loop was completed back at Hope Community Resources where Yo! Tacos waited with food and refreshments. Along the way, the Kenai and Soldotna Police Departments lent their support, and blocked off intersections while the procession made its way through the different towns.
“They (the police) did a phenomenal job, and it means a lot to us that they volunteered their time,” Conklin said. “The community support was just amazing.”
Gill was at the front of the procession along with Jerry’s 16 year-old son Owen, and he said that a lot of drivers going the other way flashed their headlights or waved in support. Others helped clear the roadway or stopped to take pictures of the convoy as it passed.
Lee and the others had planned to organize more rides in other towns across the state before this first one even took place. They have begun to organize an event in Homer after a rider from the southern peninsula requested they do so. Lee said that a couple of families have since reached out to him for additional information regarding counseling and mental health services.
With that in mind, Lee, Gill and Conklin considered the first ride a huge success and are hoping to carry that momentum into the future with more rides across the state — and maybe even a few snowmachine rides during the winter months when the motorcycles are put away. Lee, Conklin, Gill and Winfrey expressed their appreciation for all who came out or supported the event.
“You can’t solve a problem if you ignore it,” Lee said. “If you were involved in this, thank you for showing your support and reminding the community that we’re still a community.”