The Talimena Rally may seem to be just a bunch of bikers rumbling across mountaintops in Oklahoma and Arkansas. But it’s really, as founder Neil Jones always says, “all about the kids.”
Most of us have an image of bikers that we’ve gleaned from a smattering of movies, a handful of news reports, and maybe some very limited personal experience. And most of the time that image is wrong – especially when it comes to the bikers riding in the Talimena Rally “Cruisin’ for St. Jude.”
I remember, for example, a few years ago, a funeral service was being held at a nearby small town for one of our fallen Iraq War heroes. A bunch of protesters had vowed – and even attempted – to disrupt the service as a way to protest the war. This, of course, was not only disrespectful and unpatriotic but would have added immeasurably to the family’s grief.
But a large group of bikers from the area came to the rescue. After the people had gathered, these bikers blocked the access roads and encircled the cemetery so that the service could proceed with dignity.
That’s the kind of bikers we’re talking about here – hundreds of men and women who aim to have a good time while raising funds to support St. Jude Hospital and help kids battling cancer.
In fact, last year the Talimena Rally raised just shy of $50,000 . . . and had a great time doing it.
What is the Talimena Rally?
First of all, according to Neil Jones, founder and event coordinator of the Talimena Rally, “It’s all about the kids.” And that means all the fun, registration fees, donations – everything – is intended to help those children with cancer receiving treatment at St. Jude.
The Talimena Rally itself, set for May 23-25 this year, is quite an adventure.
Riders start off at Texarkana, Arkansas, and wind up at Mena by traveling a portion of the Talimena Scenic Drive. When the rally nears Mena, local police block the roads for safe passage and an impressive procession down the mountain. And it’s not just bikers either. An Oklahoma slingshot group, the Oklahoma Blue Knights, often make the trip, as well as people without bikes, in cars and other vehicles.
Here’s a rundown from the Talimena Rally Facebook page…
The event is a chance to ride the motorcycling terrain of Arkansas while raising money for cancer research. All proceeds from the motorcycle rally go to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. This year’s headquarters for the event will be the Arkansas Convention Center in Texarkana.
The cost to participate is $80 before May 1 and $100 after that date. This includes two group rides, point runs, four meals, a rally T-shirt (for the early registrants), and live music by bands including Mike Mayberry and the Slow Hands on Friday night with the Bone Dancers on Saturday night.
As for riding, a “Riding the Hills” group ride has been scheduled for May 24 that will include riding through the back roads of Arkansas to Glenwood. The following day (May 25) will be a group ride to Queen Wilhelmina including part of the famous Talimena Scenic Byway.
In addition, each June Talimena Rally participants are welcome to ride to Memphis, Tennessee, to deliver the donations right to St. Jude. They can also tour the facility and see exactly where their money is going. Transparency, according to Jones, is a top concern.
Typically, a group of 25 to 30 riders makes the trip to Memphis to deliver the donations, which is scheduled for June 21 this year. And age is no barrier – Jones’ granddaughter has been going since she was six years old.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
Here’s why these riders are raising money with the Talimena Rally.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (as that redoubtable resource Wikipedia says) was founded in 1962 and “is a pediatric research facility focused on children’s catastrophic diseases, particularly leukemia and other cancers. The hospital costs about $2.8 million a day to run, and there is no cost to the patient to be treated. It is located in Memphis, Tennessee, and is a nonprofit medical corporation.”
But, really, that description just barely scratches the surface of what St. Jude actually is and does . . .
St. Jude, one of the twelve Apostles, is the patron saint of hopeless or desperate causes – and a child with cancer certainly fits that bill. This saint can provide hope for those who find themselves in desperate or dire circumstances.
And that’s exactly what St. Jude Hospital does as well – bolstering hope for afflicted children by providing free treatment and searching for cures.
The Genesis of St. Jude Hospital
You may have seen the old TV spots for St. Jude featuring Danny Thomas (and occasionally his daughter Marlo). But you’re probably not aware of the story behind St. Jude’s founding. It goes like this…
Around 70 years ago, Danny Thomas was a struggling young entertainer, just barely scratching out a living and with a baby on the way.
While in Detroit during this period, he attended Church and put his last seven dollars in the collection. And then, realizing what he had done, Thomas prayed to find a way to pay the upcoming hospital bills. And his prayer was answered. The very next day, he secured a small part that would pay ten times what he had put in the collection.
A couple of years later, Thomas was seeing a modicum of success in his career, but just couldn’t take it to the next level. So he asked St. Jude to intercede for him, saying, “Help me find my way in life, and I will build you a shrine.” And this was the seed that eventually blossomed into St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
The years passed, and Thomas’ career as an entertainer flourished, thrusting him into the international spotlight. At length, he called to mind his pledge to St. Jude and again asked for direction. So in the early 1950s plans to fulfill his vow began to take concrete shape in the form of an idea to build a children’s hospital.
In 1955, Thomas, along with a group of Memphis businessmen pledged to support the cause, refined the idea, and began making plans to build “a unique research hospital devoted to curing catastrophic diseases in children.” And the fundraising efforts commenced, which included Thomas’ own fundraising shows.
But money to build the hospital wasn’t all that was needed – they still needed the funds to run and maintain it. So Thomas called on his fellow citizens of Lebanese descent, and the result was the forming of the ALSAC. It is “the nation’s second-largest health-care charity and is supported by the efforts of more than 1 million volunteers.”
So St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was built – developing from a vow to an idea to reality.
The hospital seeks “improvements in the care of pediatric leukemias and numerous forms of solid tumors” and “has brought about improved health care for children all over the world.” In fact, at this unique hospital, the survival rates for childhood cancers have risen from 20% at its founding in 1962 to 80% today.
St. Jude Today
Today, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital “is leading the way the world understands, treats, and defeats childhood cancer and other life-threatening diseases.” Here’s their mission statement . . .
The mission of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is to advance cures, and means of prevention, for pediatric catastrophic diseases through research and treatment. Consistent with the vision of our founder Danny Thomas, no child is denied treatment based on race, religion, or a family’s ability to pay.
This unique hospital, then, has two simple goals: 1) staying “at the cutting edge of the latest medicine and research” and 2) “freeing families from the biggest burden in getting life-saving health care: the cost.
“Families never receive a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food – because all a family should worry about is helping their children.” The hospital operates almost entirely on funds received from gracious donors.
And that’s where the Talimena Rally “Cruisin’ for St. Jude comes in.
The Talimena Scenic Drive for the Talimena Rally
Oklahoma has a lot more than Dust Bowls and cowboys, and Arkansas is about much more than moonshine and hillbillies. Both states claim part of the renowned Talimena Scenic drive.
This drive takes its name from a combination of the names of the towns that form the terminus at each end of the drive – Talihina, Oklahoma, and Mena, Arkansas.
Opened in 1969 and designated a National Scenic Byway in 2005, it is a 54-mile stretch of scenic highway that runs from Talihina to Mena or from Mena to Talihina, depending on where you live and start out.
The Talihina Drive wends its way through the Ouachita National Forest taking a route across the tops of the Winding Stair Mountains, which includes Rich Mountain, the second tallest peak in Arkansas. Along the way, you’ll find hiking trails, 22 scenic overlooks, and hill grades of at least 13%. Overall, a great route for a ride.
The Arkansas portion of the Talimena Drive is 18 miles long on SH 88, stretching from the Oklahoma state line to Mena. Traveling northwest from the Oklahoma border, you’ll go through the Ouachita National Forest, climb 2,681-foot-high Rich Mountain, and pass through Queen Wilhelmina State Park. This is a route with breathtaking views, including tree-clad mountain peaks, deep valleys, streams, and lakes.
Neil Jones – The Man Who Brings It All Together in the Talimena Rally
So what happens when you bring a bunch of bikers together to cruise the Arkansas leg of the Talimena Drive and raise money to help kids with cancer at St. Jude Hospital?
Neil Jones can answer that…
“We’re doing the same thing we do every weekend,” Neil said, ” so why not help kids one weekend?” And that he has surely done. Since 2012, the Talimina Rally has raised and donated to St. Jude a total of $160,373.73. Here’s how it all got started…
Neil’s wife was a cancer victim and eventually succumbed to the disease. At that point, he was burnt out and resigning as director of the Whiskey River HOG Chapter in Texarkana. But then he met a young lady in Hot Springs… who eventually became his wife.
It was through her encouragement that Neil found the strength and courage to carry on and not give up. As Carol asked him, “Do you think those kids ever give up?” At her urging, then, Neil carried on with the Talimina Rally.
At first, though, the proceeds from the Talimena Rally went to various local charities. But after Neil’s wife passed away – and fully conscious of the terrible struggle people have with cancer – he found St. Jude. And Neil found his calling.
Now, the Talimina Rally consumes him.
He said, “God has put this on my heart and mind. Every day I am dealing with something related to the rally.” In fact, they don’t even charge the rally vendors, and they have several gracious donors like Tyson, which donates 1,000+ chicken quarters. It’s a labor of love, and it’s all about the kids.
Doo Rags for the Kids
And here’s an extra something Neil does for the kids at St. Jude…
Every year, Neil personally delivers hundreds of doo rags (the quintessential biker headwear) to the kids at St. Jude. He is for them the “Biker Santa.” He brings to the hospital these doo rags to distribute to the kids there – doo rags in all colors, but pink for the girls.
When Neil was first looking for doo-rag donors, he contacted Wholesale For Everyone. He talked to Jeff on the phone who said he’d talk to Dan Weaver, the owner of Wholesale For Everyone. Dan said he would gladly donate the doo rags for this cause – and has been doing so for the past three years.
For Neil Jones, then, it really is all about the kids.
Sign Up and Mount Up for the Talimena Rally
If you’re still undecided, take a look at what Jacqueline Harris, Director-ECC Services, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, had to say in last year’s thank-you letter to Neil . . .
It’s through commitment like yours that we are able to provide the best possible care to more than 260 children every day without further burdening their families with the medical expenses involved in treating a child with a catastrophic illness.
You’re an important part of the St. Jude team, and it’s through your dedication that we’re able to continue our most important work. Together we do make a difference in the lives of our children suffering from the most horrible and devastating childhood diseases. We are fortunate to have you on the St. Jude team.
To find out more about the next Talimena Rally, you can also contact Neil and Carol Jones at 903-276-6884.