As Eastern Madera County bustled with vehicles and buses dropping off thousands of kids for their first day of the new school year Thursday morning, one Yosemite High student got a special escort that could be seen, and heard, throughout the mountains.
Hannah Lewis, a freshman, rode to the school inside a limousine which was preceded by about 40 motorcycle riders in Hannah’s Ride Against Bullying.
“I’m so happy they chose to do this for me,” Lewis said. “It makes me feel really special.”
Lewis, 14, was born with Spina Bifida, a birth defect literally translated to “split spine.” About eight babies are born in the United States each day with the defect, which occurs when the spinal column of a child in utero doesn’t entirely close.
Its effects range from those who never know they have it to others, like Lewis, who need leg braces or other assistance to stay mobile.
Lewis said she has faced bullies throughout her life because of that. At one point, she had to switch elementary schools when some students refused to stop making fun of her.
“They would stand in front of her and limp to mock the way she walks,” said Lisa Lewis, Hannah’s mother. “They’d tell her she’d never have a date, it went on and on. But she has a big heart, and she always keeps her head up to stay strong.”
As she sat in her wheelchair in the YHS parking lot, surrounded by smiling motorcyclists clad in leather jackets and bandanas, Hannah’s contagious grin made her strength clear, and showed she felt at home.
“I love them all so much, they’re like my family,” she said. “I’m a little nervous about being at a bigger school, but I feel less nervous now.”
“We’re all your family,” added Bethany Nimmo, a friend and fellow Badger student. “It’s going to be an awesome day.”
Richard Hawkins, president of the American Bikers Association’s Coarsegold chapter, organized the ride in partnership with G’Mas and Pappas Biker Apparel, from Coarsegold’s Historic Village to the school.
He said he met Lewis about three months ago at a shop in the village and immediately knew she was full of light, even after a lifetime of 15 - and counting - surgeries, the first when she was six weeks old.
“Hannah is a blessing,” Hawkins said. “She adopted us, not the other way around. And for what she’s going through and how she can smile every day, while keeping a positive attitude, is beyond me.”
Lisa said her daughter is an avid singer and any other teenage girl, with her only complaint that she can’t wear high heels. She said a lot of people aren’t aware of the effects of Spina Bifida, so Thursday’s ride helps bring attention to the birth defect’s effects as well as bullying as a whole.
Hawkins agreed, adding the point of Hannah’s escort wasn’t to “bully the bullies.”
“Bullying doesn’t start at school, it’s everywhere,” Hawkins said. “For most schools, it’s easier to move a child that’s being bullied out of a school instead of getting rid of the bullies. So this brings awareness to that, and hopefully it will help others feel more secure in telling bullies to stop.”
“As a parent, I see schools kind of brush it off because there’s so much of it,” added Lisa Lewis. “So I’m hoping with this ride, it brings awareness to people who may not have thought about how devastating it can be.”
But, Hawkins noted, he didn’t mind if some tormenters felt intimidated.
“At the end of the day, no matter how big of a bully you are, there’s always someone bigger,” Hawkins said. “There’s always someone badder than you. So if the bullies got a little intimidated, that’s perfectly fine with me. What they’re doing isn’t right.”
So while some students gave each other high fives and exchanged jokes, Hannah was sharing hugs with dozens of bikers, knowing they always have her back.
“It’s like I’m in big girl school now,” Lewis said. “I’m ready.”
To help raise money for Valley Children’s Hospital’s Spina Bifida services, a poker run and barbecue is scheduled in Coarsegold Oct. 21. Hundreds of bikers from the Coarsegold, Fresno, and Tulare chapters of the American Bikers Association are expected to attend. More details will come in the near future, Hawkins said.
Hannah Lewis has two siblings - Hayden, who also attends Yosemite High, and Halie, who attends Rivergold Elementary.