Benevolent bikers Friends pull together to help disabled Eureka woman; fundraiser set for April 13

Thursday, April 4, 2013
Kevin Ratkovich, Bobby Akers, Dwayne Crouch, Toye Kallenbach, Justin Holland, Bob Raupers, Chet Johnson and Bri Johnson in front of Bri's new van. Photo by David Bell

A group of bikers about a dozen strong sits at a long table at The Lumberyard. They're having some adult beverages, joking among themselves, and waiting on a special guest.

Some of the bikers look like Regular Joes wearing Harley-Davidson jackets; some are rough-and-tumble, big and mean-looking, with handkerchief atop their heads, long, tousled hair or lengthy, sometimes scraggly beards. A few women are in the group, also sporting biker apparel but otherwise made up to the nines.

This is a special day, after all. Soon, a young woman named Brianna Johnson will arrive, and even the hardest-looking bikers will be fighting back big-hearted tears.

Brianna, 23, is confined to a wheelchair, as she suffers from a progressive degenerative nerve disease called Friedreich's Ataxia. The disease, which generally becomes apparent between the ages of 5 and 15, strikes about 1 in 50,000 people in the United States.

Brianna's disease, according to medical experts, eventually leaves its victims unable to use their lower extremities or speak clearly, requiring them to be wheelchair-bound and have assistance in most, if not all, activities of daily living. Eventually, after 20 years or more of living with the disease, many sufferers begin having serious heart problems related to Friedreich's, often ultimately leading to heart failure.

But neither Brianna nor her father, Chet, dwell on those things. Instead, they focus on living life to its fullest now -- and by all accounts, they seem to be determined to, simply put, be the best human beings they can be. Chet is known regionally as a great and generous friend to the biking community, hosting events for them at the 1876 Inn where he is manager, offering biker discounts, and being on call for his guests pretty much 24-7. His giving spirit's reputation definitely precedes him.

While her dad works all the time, Bri, as her friends and family call her, helps out at the front desk as much as possible. She enjoys meeting and getting to know the guests, she says. In her spare time, Bri loves to read, listen to music and go to the movies. Her favorite genre of literature? Fantasy fiction novels. "I like books that make me have to go Google it to see if something in it is real," she says, grinning from ear to ear with a spark in her eye. "Anne Rice's vampire chronicles, 'The Chronicles of Narnia,' Dan Brown books, Harry Potter. I love those."

While nothing prevents Bri from reading or listening to music at home -- she and her father live at the 1876 Inn -- a lot prevents her from going to concerts to see her favorite bands, going to the movies -- or going anywhere, for that matter, without her father having to tag along. Because the Johnsons have not been able to afford to purchase a van for Bri, Chet must accompany his pretty, outgoing daughter everywhere so he can lift her out of her wheelchair and place her in their car -- every single time she leaves the house. To say the least, this puts a staunch restriction on Bri's activities and lifestyle -- she is an independent-minded, popular young woman with lots of friends and a serious boyfriend -- and it places a heavy burden on Chet, who works all hours of the day and night running the 1876 and is pretty much on call 24-7. Most of their outings involve Chet taking Bri to the doctor and to lunch; they are not able to get out much, she says.

A couple of months ago, Bri cracked a joke with Chet's friend and fellow biker Kevin Ratkovich of Eureka Springs, who was discussing their favorite "rides" -- motorcyle models: "I need a ride, too," Bri said.

The funny-sassy young woman has been thinking more about her future, and her father's. Having lost her mother two years ago to a sudden heart attack, she is naturally concerned about her father's health now, and the strain of lifting her multiple times per day and every time she wants to go anywhere.

"Losing my mom was the worst thing I've ever been through," Bri recalls. "She was my best friend. She was always my champion, always fighting for me. She was the mom who would kick in the principal's door and say 'Not my baby!' if she felt for instance that I was not being given equal opportunities.

"My dad is all I have left. He is my best friend. And I worry a lot about him staying healthy."

Back at the Lumberyard, Bri settles in at the end of the table of her and her dad's biker buddies. Among the dozen are Ratkovich's good friend Bobby Akers of Barling, Louie Mettille of Eureka Springs, Toye Kallenbach, and Jeanie Redwine Shane, and running around taking care of the group and discussing details is Lumberyard owner Janeen McGuire.

Kevin grabs a white teddy bear bearing a "Ride For Bri" label and sticks it and a flyer in front of Bri. She begins to read it, and her eyes grow wide as a smile slowly spreads across her face.

The flyer bears a photo of a van -- the one that Ratkovich, Akers and Mettille have just secretly helped purchase for Bri and Chet. It also shares the details of an April 13 fundraiser -- an all day party with a "fun ride," giant raffle with tons of prizes, and live rock-and-roll by Jason Gordon -- that the group of biker friends has organized to help cover the $4,400 cost of the van. (The wheelchair lift system is already being installed in the van, thanks to Bri's Disability benefits.)

A few minutes later, amid laughter and chatting, and after Ratkovich explains the fundraiser and tells Bri about the van she's about to own, the young woman excuses herself from the group, quietly.

"I cried, I won't lie ... when the van was first shown to me," she says later. "I went off alone to do it though. I didn't want to bring the atmosphere down."

Chet, for his part, has been "very moved" since learning of his friends' efforts to help his daughter. "He tells me all the time we have some very good friends," Bri says, clearly very grateful and excited about getting a van.

"The biggest excitement honestly is my dad's health -- I am so relieved. And this opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for me. Like girls' night for one, and going to the movies or to shops I'm not really comfortable dragging my dad to. Or going to see the Chippendales," she adds, joking.

Ratkovich, who covers the motorcycle scene in Northwest Arkansas on his RatPack Biker's Blog at, notes that Bri's positive attitude and Chet's generosity and hard work made them the perfect candidates for the group of bikers' good intentions.

"These are such good people, so deserving of our help. I hope everyone will come out to the event on April 13, buy a teddy bear, take a fun charity ride with us, or if they can't make it that day they can donate something for the raffle prizes, or just make a cash donation," he says. "We would all be very grateful. I know this community and I believe people will step up and really show this girl how much she is loved and worthy of this."

* * *

The "She Needs A Ride, Too" benefit for the Brianna Johnson van fund will take place at The Lumberyard at 105 E. Van Buren on Saturday, April 13 all day, with doors opening at 11 a.m. Admission is $2. The fun ride -- motorcycles as well as regular vehicles are encouraged to participate -- is from 1 to 4 p.m. departing from The Lumberyard and will include stops at the Beaver Bridge, at Angler's Inn, and at the Beaver Dam.

Raffle tickets for $1 each, free munchies and discounts on menu items and adult beverages will be offered all day long, as well as those white teddy bears bearing Bri's name, on sale for $10 -- and $8 of that for every bear sold will go toward the van fund.

Rock-and-roll musician Jason Gordon will perform beginning at 8 p.m. The raffle drawings will take place at 6 p.m. and after the Gordon's first set, around 9 or 9:30 p.m.

Prizes will include gift certificates to numerous local businesses, including event sponsors Angler's Inn, Chaser's, 1876 Inn, The Lumberyard and the Lovely County Citizen, as well as items such as a nice leather vest, grills and other new items that were donated. Donations and sponsors are still needed; to donate call Kevin Ratkovich at 815-210-1935 or email him at

For more information or to RSVP to the event, search for "She Needs A Ride Too" on Facebook.

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