Wheels in Motion for Sick Kids
By Amanda Burke
FITCHBURG -- Joerg Richter relied on support from his brothers as he cycled cross-country, visiting hospitalized children suffering from rare diseases.
The former firefighter hails from Germany, and in the morning on Tuesday, Sept. 11, he awoke inside the Fitchburg Fire Department’s North Street headquarters.
Dressed in the neon orange outfit one of those children said made him appear like a “colorful canary,” Richter, 58, said he was grateful for each day he has in good health, and for the string of fire departments that sheltered him along his journey.
“In the beginning it was never meant to be like this,” he said, standing in the department’s mess hall. “It tells you about how the brotherhood works in the U.S., especially on a day like this.”
Richter got goosebumps as he brought up the significance of Tuesday, which marked the 17th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
The attacks that killed 343 firefighters shook firefighters like him living around the world, because, he explained, “everybody recognized, ‘hey that could be me.’”
Before watching as local first responders marked the day with a ceremony before the 9/11 Memorial at the fire station, Richter recounted his long journey to Fitchburg, which began in April.
Richter said he wanted to cycle across the Unites States since he was an 8-year-old boy in Wurzburg, Germany, about two hours outside of Munich.
Fast-forward a few decades, when a back injury forced Richter to retire from working as a firefighter. He took a job in the insurance industry.
Come this spring, after three of his friends died in quick succession, Richter knew his dream could no longer wait.
He quit his job, and after three years cycling U.S. routes to raise awareness for Care-for-Rare Foundation during what vacation time he had, began his Pan-American trip in San Francisco.
“I threw a pebble in the pond and I was hoping for a few ripples concerning awareness,” he said.
German nonprofit Care-for-Rare raises money for children with rare diseases. Richter said he aligned himself with the cause because the son of his friend suffers from Tay-Sachs, a rare genetic disorder that destroys a person’s nerve cells.
In San Francisco, he cycled into the local fire station, asked whether they’d like to have a coffee, and was instead invited to a full barbecue meal.
His cross-country route included stops at local children’s hospitals in Salt Lake City, Denver, Kansas City, and Rochester, New York. At each hospital he visited children with rare diseases, their parents, and collected donations.
Teddy bears were shipped to each hospital in advance of his visit, to give to children whose lives put his own into perspective.
Richter stayed the night at the Las Vegas Fire Department, a facility he said was as luxe as the strip.
Accommodations were bare as he rode into the country, sleeping in fire stations built from little more than plastic siding, and slept in the space underneath a fire truck in Nevada.
The chiefs at many of the fire departments where he stayed asked Richter how many miles he planned to cycle the day of his departure, then called ahead to neighboring departments to ensure he had a place to sleep.
The Brattleboro, Vermont, Fire Department called up their counterparts in Fitchburg to say Richter needed somewhere to stay the night, he said.
“I went from luxury to simple, but I always had support,” he said.
Richter planned to leave Fitchburg after the 9/11 ceremony to cycle to the Cambridge Fire Department, where he will stay before visiting patients at Boston Children’s’ Hospital.
Upon his return, he plans write a book about his experience, tentatively titled, No Coincidences.
While looking back on his journey -- which ends this month when his visa expires -- Richter thought, “these are the lucky days.”
“These are the lucky days, the lucky days for me are when I sleep on the floor below an engine on a mattress,” he said. “I’m a little bit stiff in the morning, definitely, but still I’m able to get myself up; whereas these kids in the hospitals, perhaps they will never experience something like that. They would be happy if they got wet or cold. I always tell myself, ‘hey, I’m the lucky one.’ ”