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A story in a motorcycle trade paper started Bob Henig on his 20-year crusade to help children overcome a deadly disease that attacks 11 of them in the U.S. daily. The children's stories of coping, surviving and sometimes succumbing have kept him riding to raise money to battle pediatric brain cancer.
He will be on the road Sunday, leading a charity drive of about 400 motorcyclists that will likely surpass the $3 million milestone in local funds raised for the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation.
"I don't know anyone in my own extended family who is fighting this disease, but from the first ride, I knew it was the right organization for me to give back," said Henig, owner of Bob's BMW Motorcycles in Jessup.
He will guide fellow motorcyclists on a rambling tour of scenic country roads during Howard County's 20th annual Ride for Kids, an event that raised more than $251,000 last year.
"In 19 years, we have raised $2.9 million from this one ride," he said. "I know this year will put us over $3 million."
He plots the 52-mile route months in advance and offers maps to those who might want to repeat it.
"We don't loop the Beltway," said Henig. "We take the back roads and take in the scenery."
He won't be traveling solo. In the side car of his 1997 Duetto — a limited-edition, Swiss-made model rarely seen in the U.S — a helmeted 7-year-old "star survivor" will once again be seated with her favorite teddy bear. Henig and Paige Ann Setzer have shared the bright yellow cycle for the past three years and become so accustomed to the landmarks that they have developed hand signals to communicate.
"The ride is just right, not too fast or too slow and not too bumpy," said Paige, a second-grader at Bryant Woods Elementary in Columbia, who underwent brain surgery and radiation therapy shortly after her first birthday and remains cancer-free. "I give a thumbs up to show everything is good with me."
Henig said, "She is a great passenger. She even points out the wildlife to me."
The ride, which begins and ends at Turf Valley Resort in Ellicott City, is one of 40 across the country this year and the 500th nationwide that the North Carolina-based foundation has sponsored since it was established about 25 years ago. The nonprofit organization has raised more than $60 million for research and family support, much of that through its rides.
Henig has already participated in the 2011 rides in Richmond, Va., and Tulsa, Okla. He has personally raised $550,000 for the foundation in the past two decades and has once won the Honda motorcycle given away. He sold it and returned the proceeds to the charity.
"I want to keep growing this event until we find a cure," he said. "We are all doing this for kids. We are focusing on lives we are hoping to change and bringing money to research."
Each cyclist makes a minimum $35 donation to the foundation, but most don't stop there. The average donation is $250 and most arrive with pledges from ghost riders, who can't make the trip but want to help the cause, Henig said.
"I promise them all a great memory and the chance to win a new cycle," he said.
Registration begins at 7:30 a.m. and riders depart at 9:30 a.m. with a state police escort. "The police control every intersection for us," Henig said. "We never really have to put our foot down."
About 90 minutes later, the riders return to Turf Valley for a brown bag lunch, which is delivered along with a note from a grateful parent or a child survivor. The riders also can meet many of the children they are helping and get updates on the latest research.
"This is a real celebration of life that shows cyclists the difference research is making and gives kids a chance to forget they are sick," said Mary Ratcliffe, communications manager for Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation. "In many cases, these riders get to watch these children grow up over the years."
The lunch bag notes can be from college students who are thriving after their battle or from a 5-year-old patient who has drawn a cheery picture.
Mandie Setzer, Paige's mother, finds it encouraging that so many donate time and dollars to the cause.
"That's the great thing about this ride," she said. "All these people with no connection to this disease show up and ride for all these families."
The family has attended the festivities for several years. Paige was initially frightened by the large crowd and the thunderous noise from hundreds of revving engines. Now she dons a helmet and climbs right into the side car.
"Now she just loves it," Setzer said.
Paige's parents and friends take up spots along the route and wave at the passing motorcade.
"I like getting to see all the people watch me ride," said Paige. "And I am helping to raise money for sick kids."
Information: pbtfus.org/rideforkids/events/2011/baltimore-washington.html or 1-800-253-6530.