Aroostook County When Valley Rivers Middle School teacher Lori-Ann Saucier Levesque first came across a news report about an upcoming event aimed to raise funds to benefit County Dialysis Center, she was unsure how to support the cause, which was near and dear to her heart. Then inspiration struck – if she was unable to participate in TAMC’s Power to the Pedal, she’d organize her own Bike-a-Thon.

Power to the Pedal
Power to the Pedal

TAMC’s Power to the Pedal will take place on Friday, May 29 at County Physical Therapy’s Presque Isle location, where participants will ride on stationary bikes in shifts over a 12-hour time period. Organizers have set a goal of raising $30,000, the cost of purchasing two hemodialysis machines that provide life-sustaining treatment for patients. The machines will complement the construction of an updated facility for County Dialysis, which will be located inside the unoccupied section of the former Smythe’s IGA building, adjacent to TAMC’s North Street Healthcare facility, on North Street in Presque Isle.

Levesque has a personal connection to the County Dialysis Center, which makes this cause a special one to her.

“In 2012, my father was diagnosed with renal failure. He received dialysis at the County Dialysis Center in Presque Isle. I spent that summer at the dialysis center. My family and I took turns driving my father to his sessions. I met many wonderful people, patients and nurses. I also have an adoptive daughter whose grandmother was a patient at County Dialysis. Due to most nursing homes refusing to take dialysis patients, she now resides in Bangor, hours away from her family and friends. I do not want to see this happen to other families. It is very difficult,” said Levesque.

With her personal money tied up in an already tight household budget, yet with a strong desire to help, Levesque brought her idea to the one group she knew would rally behind her idea – the students at Valley Rivers Middle School.

“[I] read the article to the members of our student council,” said Levesque. “We entertained the idea of using stationary bikes as well, but felt that limited the amount of students we could invite to participate. It then hit me, ‘We can be on moving bikes! This would allow us to invite everyone. This could be fun.’ The members of the council were excited about the idea, and we began throwing ideas around as to how this could/should look.”

Levesque, backed with the full support of her students, immediately set the wheels in motion for what is turning out to be a district-wide event, with students participating from all of the district’s outlying elementary schools.

“Our first step was to pass the idea by our principal and vice principal. They liked the idea, but wanted to meet and ensure the safety of all children while participating. I drafted a letter that would be sent out to the parents. We then pondered if the younger students (Pre-k-grade 1) should be included because they are young and not yet steady on their bikes. I met with the principal, and we then concluded that the younger students could come accompanied by their parents and use training wheels if needed,” explained Levesque.

In the midst of doing all of the prep work for the event, Levesque also contacted County Dialysis Center.

“I wanted their blessing to move forward with our idea. After all, this was their event and we were adapting it. I wanted to be certain we had their approval. We received a very welcoming response, so we are moving forward with much excitement,” said Levesque.

“I think my response was, ‘Wow! Just….wow!’” said Pamela Frank, RN, manager of County Dialysis. “Organizing a school fundraiser for one school is a huge undertaking for one person to accomplish by themselves, but Lori didn’t stop there. She also contacted the neighboring schools and challenged them to participate as well. I believe the letter of participation will go out to about 500 children. I really can’t express how grateful we are for all her efforts, and how absolutely impressed we are by these children that want to help out. What an outstanding community outpouring for our unit.”

Levesque’s Bike-a-thon takes place on Saturday, May 30, with various age groups happening at separate times to ensure safety for riders of all ages and abilities. Pre-K, K, and grade 1 students will ride first, from 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Grade 2, 3, and 4 riders will ride from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Finally, grade 5 and 6 students will ride the longest, from 2:00 4:00 p.m.

The students will ride laps around the school, where traffic should be minimal. Levesque encourages all riders to wear their helmets and safety gear. Everyone participating must raise $20 in sponsorships to take part. The top three fundraisers will receive special recognition and prizes. Students with the most laps around the school will also receive recognition and prizes.

“Of course I am dreaming of a heavenly amount. I would love to raise $10,000. The more realistic goal would be $5,000,” said Levesque of what she hopes to accomplish with the event.

In addition to the worthy cause it supports, the Bike-a-thon has proven to be a learning opportunity for Levesque’s students.

“Many questions have come my way since we read the article: Why was it so important to have a center close by? What exactly does dialysis do? Why does it have to be done so often? Young people are quite inquisitive so with each question comes a learning opportunity. I firmly believe that students need to see the importance of ‘the power of one’ at an early age. One person with passion can work to make things happen. You do not have to be a politician, or a wealthy person of influence. When it comes to helping others all you need is focus and the desire,” said Levesque.

Her students’ reactions reiterate the importance of the event and the personal connection they are able to make to the cause thanks to their teacher’s willingness to share her experience.

Vance, a 6th grade student council member said, “I started off wanting to do this because I could tell Mrs. Levesque felt that this was very important. Her dad was a dialysis patient and this center helped him. I think it is a good idea to help them stay open so they can help other people with kidney failure. I think it is neat that little kids will be coming here to have fun, and they will be helping dialysis patients at the same time.”

“I think it is important because we are raising money for people who need dialysis. I think keeping the center is a smart idea so people will not have to go so far away for treatments. I also think it will be a fun activity, one filled with exercise, which we all need,” said Julia, another 6th grade student council member.

President of the Student Council Gabrielle agreed with her peers, saying, “I think this event is important because there are many people suffering from this disease. We only have one treatment place in Aroostook County, and we need to keep it. They need money to keep it open and our bike-a-thon will help them do that.”

Frank says the current facility, which also came together as a product of community support, is now outdated. County Dialysis Center will use all of the funds they receive from both events to help provide a better experience for their Aroostook County patients.

“This dialysis unit was built in 1997, mainly through the fundraising efforts of local communities. Knowing that they are still here supporting us is an incredible reassuring feeling. We are the only dialysis unit north of Lincoln and providing these life-sustaining services to individuals in Aroostook County with kidney failure is absolutely essential. Without this unit, patients would need to travel to Lincoln or Bangor three times a week to receive their treatments, creating an enormous hardship for both the patient and their families,” said Frank.

Levesque is hoping her event will set off a chain reaction in support of the vital services County Dialysis provides.

“I am hoping our event sparks interest and encourages other schools to join us. I spent much time at the dialysis center with my dad. The staff was so attentive and professional. Having experienced dialysis, I cannot imagine going to Bangor from Aroostook County three times per week. I will work and do everything in my power to ensure that does not happen,” said Levesque.

The County Dialysis Center treats approximately 45 patients, three times each week.  In 2014, patients received 5,789 treatments at the center, which has been in constant operation for nearly two decades.

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