The reason behind the ride: Bikers fire up their engines for families in need
If there's anything louder than the roar of 1,000 motorcycles revving up, it's the deafening silence left behind when a sick child is taken to the hospital.
This weekend, as the annual Ronald McDonald House Ride takes another spin in New York Mills, even the noise of the crowds, the rock bands and the thousand-plus engines won't be enough to drown out the event's ultimate purpose - helping families of ill children make it through some really tough times.
The ride, now in its 11th year, has raised nearly three-quarters of a million dollars for the Ronald McDonald House.
Riders travel from as far away as Florida and Montana to take part in the four-day event, which also features live entertainment, auctions, camping, food and door prizes. It takes a planning committee 10 months to set it all up, and more than 100 volunteers help pull it off.
Today, the NY Mills ride is the largest of its kind in the world.
But back at the start, it was just a small group of people looking to put a fundraiser together - and one local family was their inspiration.
Greg Karvonen, a leading organizer of the ride, said NY Mills couple, Dennis and DeLorres Windel, and their grandson are the reason why the event has ties to the Ronald McDonald House.
The Windel family has a close personal connection to the Ronald McDonald House, as Dennis's daughter and son-in-law had stayed there on two separate occasions - first in 1998 when their 2-year-old son Andrew needed a liver transplant, and again two years and nine months later, after he was diagnosed with cancer.
At that time, the nearest hospital equipped to handle Andrew's illnesses was in the Twin Cities, which meant mom Tamie and dad Archie, who resided in Fergus Falls, needed a place to stay. They didn't want to leave their little boy alone even for one night, said Dennis, and they knew he would be at the hospital for a long time. Paying for a hotel room, on top of all the other medical bills, was a financially overwhelming option.
If it weren't for the Ronald McDonald House, Dennis said, he doesn't know what the family would have done.
For all the months while Andrew was hooked up to machines, undergoing extensive treatments at the hospital, his rare outings to the Ronald McDonald House were a high point. Together with his parents, Andrew could play games, bake, make crafts and just have fun while he was there. Dennis and DeLorres - grandma and grandpa - would visit as often as they could, almost every weekend.
In that time, the Windels met a lot of other families who were suffering through the same or similar situations with their children and grandchildren, Dennis said, and they developed a strong appreciation for the 'home-away-from-home' that had opened its doors to all of them.
"There are so many people that have been able to use the Ronald McDonald House; not only in our state, but our community here," said Dennis. "It's very traumatic for any family to go through these things, and having the Ronald McDonald House... it's so needed."
Fortunately for the Windels, their story has a happy ending. Andrew is now 15 and officially "cancer-free," reports Dennis happily. He goes back to the hospital just once a year now, for an annual checkup.
It's nothing short of a miracle, considering that even before his cancer diagnosis, Andrew was once at the top of a transplant list. After doctors said they couldn't wait for a donor any longer, they used a "last resort" measure and took a third of Tamie's liver as a transplant for Andrew.
"There's a chance of losing one or both of the patients (with this procedure), but they didn't have any other alternative," said Dennis.
Relieved to have survived that ordeal, the family was shocked when, less than three years later, they learned of Andrew's large cell lymphoma.
"The family's initial stay was very traumatic, but when you get that second diagnosis... as parents and grandparents, it's devastating," said Dennis.
This time, the family stayed at the Ronald McDonald House for eight months while Andrew underwent every treatment possible. Around this time, they were contacted by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which granted Andrew's wish to go to Walt Disney World.
It was also during this second stay that Dennis and a small group of local motorcyclists - he calls them his "brothers and sisters of the wind" - arranged a benefit ride for the family. The event raised awareness in the NY Mills community of what the Windels were going through.
A few months later, Dennis was approached by a few members of the community who wanted to start an annual motorcycle ride. They wanted to raise money for the Ronald McDonald House, because of how it had helped the Windel family. Dennis loved the idea, and the ride was born.
The community has been "very supportive" through it all, said Dennis: "My wife and I believe we've really been blessed by this whole experience, and by the hard work of everyone that has contributed to the Ronald McDonald House Ride - their generosities and their time and effort."
And while it takes many people - not just the riders themselves - to make the event a success, he added that the "people with a passion to ride" have played a big part: "A lot of them, under that leather and look, have big hearts. Big and very generous hearts."