Christopher Pendergast spends his days in a wheelchair and, unable to use his hands, relies on sensors in his headgear to operate most any motion. So, if you think a rush of ice cubes pouring down on his head would scare him, think again. He not only took the "Ice Bucket Challenge," he brought together supporters to do the same.
"We had a tsunami! I was happily and literally buried under a wall of water," says Pendergast, a retired teacher with Northport United Teachers who has ALS — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
He's using the momentum of the ALS Association's wildly successful social media campaign to continue his own quest to raise money for research and treatment of ALS.
Through his non-profit organization, Ride for Life Inc., he's asking people to "bold the cold."
"Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Ride for Life has undertaken the ‘Icing ALS' challenge. We are looking for supporters to accept a challenge from us so we can finally ‘ice' ALS by finding a cure," he reports on his website.
ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease, is a progressive, neurodegenerative disease. Most people with ALS live 24 to 36 months. Pendergast has lived 21 years with the disease — one of only 5 percent who smack down the odds.
Though Pendergast has limited use of his vocal cords, and now requires around-the-clock medical care at home, he suited up this year for 48 assembly presentations at 43 schools and colleges on Long Island and in New York City. He figures he reached an estimated 10,000 students with his message about "meeting the challenges of life."
Always beside him is his wife, Christine, a retired teacher from Port Jefferson Station TA.
In May, about 30,000 students and educators from 53 schools greeted Long Island riders during the annual Ride for Life, which Pendergast started in 1998, five years after his diagnosis. Like Pendergast, some riders are in wheelchairs; most are pedaling bicyles. They raised $85,000.
"The numbers," he says, "boggle my mind."
This year — for the first time — donations from the school community nudged out major corporate sponsors, 38 percent to 37 percent.
"It made me proud as an educator," says Pendergast, who describes his illness as similar to being "sealed in a glass coffin."
At every school visit he encourages students who are facing a parents' divorce, bullying, academic failures, drinking, drugs or other obstacles not to lose hope. His choice, he says, was to stop dying from ALS and learn to live with ALS.
"I'm going to ride until I find a cure or I will die trying," he tells them. "I will not give up."
TAKE THE ICE CHALLENGE
The Ride for Life "Icing ALS" challenge asks people to donate whatever amount they can. Donations can be made at http://ride-for-life.org/. Go to "Support" then "Donate online" and state "Icing ALS" in the comments. This article is an abridged version of the full story at www.itswhatwedo.nysut.org.