Erin Hawkins’ shoulder-length brown hair frames her chiseled face. She wears a green spaghetti strap tank top and long denim skirt. When she greets me at the door, I am struck by her natural beauty. At age 33, she looks like the cover girl for a Dove soap commercial, not a woman who is living with multiple sclerosis.
She leads me through her kitchen to the sunroom which overlooks her spacious, well-tended garden. Through the floor-to-ceiling windows that surround the room, I see what appear to be black-eyed susans in the distance. Framed sketches of bicycles dot the walls of the sunroom, and a beautiful baby grand piano sits off to the right. Just a few weeks prior, 80 people – members of Erin’s cycling team, friends and family, a jazz band, and waitstaff – gathered in this very room for a wine tasting event organized to raise money for Erin’s Fight, the para-charity organization founded by Erin’s husband, Jack, as a Valentine’s Day gift to her in 2004. “He started Erin’s Fight to give me a group of people who would be my support forever,” says Erin.
This group supports Erin’s fight against multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic, often debilitating disease which attacks the body’s central nervous system. In the six years since Erin’s Fight was established, the couple’s friends, family, and cycling mates have raised more than $100,000 for MS research through their participation in various MS walks, bike rides, and fundraising events such as the wine tasting at their home.
Jack and Erin’s ability to raise this kind of money is nothing short of remarkable. Aileena Parramore, Director of Special Events for the Georgia chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, agrees. “They’re not pulling from a corporation or corporate marketing funds that can be pushed toward a team,” says Aileena. “They built this literally from friends and family, by asking people to donate $25 here or there. For a friends and family team to raise that kind of money is pretty amazing.”
But what is it about Erin Hawkins, the chef-turned-real estate agent, avid cyclist, marathon runner, and face of one of the most successful MS cycling teams in Georgia that mobilizes people by the droves? Anthony Murphy, owner of the Georgia Shrimp Company, one of Erin’s Fight’s biggest sponsors and caterer for the summer wine tasting event, puts it this way: “Erin is just a really, really great person. She’s really easy to support, and someone you want to support.”
Jack and Erin’s story began in the early 1990’s when the teenagers, lifelong residents of Fayette County, met at Fayette County High School. They dated throughout high school. Erin graduated in 1994 and Jack graduated in 1993. The two married in 1998.
Five years later, around the spring of 2003, Erin, then a professional chef, started noticing that strange things were happening to her physically. “I had numbness on the entire left side of my body,” she recalls. “It was an irritation. I could put salt on my tongue and not taste it. Then, I began falling. My left leg wouldn’t work.”
Erin went to see a general practitioner, who referred her to a neurologist. They thought she had a brain tumor, but an MRI and spinal tap confirmed that she had MS.
“I had a fleeting moment where I said, ‘why can’t it be a brain tumor?” says Erin. “At least they can take that out. MS is this big unknown you have to live with.” But she didn’t wonder about her predicament for long. Instead, she got to work. “It became instantly, ‘what can I do with this?’”she says. “I got a very clear message—‘this is your mission. Run with it.’”
And run with it, they did. Jack, Erin’s biggest cheerleader and a self-proclaimed organizer and planner, started researching the disease and looking for ways to support his wife. “I had to find out what this is. I needed to know what her needs were and how I could help her,” he says.
The couple had always been avid cyclists. In fact, Jack had even participated in two MS bike rides through his employer long before Erin’s diagnosis. What might have otherwise appeared to be an eerie coincidence now seemed a logical solution: to use their love of cycling to bring attention to and raise money to fight MS. Jack enlisted the talents of a graphic designer friend to create a website, and in 2004, Erin’s Fight was born.
That spring, the then-seven member team participated in their first event, Walk MS, in Atlanta. In the fall, they took part in their first Bike MS event, a two-day ride at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain. That first year, Erin’s Fight raised more than $10,000. The team has participated in two MS bike rides and one MS walk every year since.
Leigh Dillard, Erin’s friend and team member, vividly recalls riding a 100-mile bike ride, “the Century,” with Erin in 2010. “It’s a nine-and-a-half hour ride and you only get ten-minute breaks,” says Leigh. “It’s hot and hilly down there in Pine Mountain. It speaks to Erin’s determination. She’s a fighter. The most impressive part of the event was crossing the finish line together. I didn’t expect to be moved by it. It was a really impressionable event.”
Erin’s best friend, Helen Gardner, also took part in the hundred-mile ride and was deeply moved by the experience. “We weren’t sure if Erin could do it,” she remembers. “We actually finished together. It was a great, great day,” she says, choking by tears.
Helen and Erin met in 2004, when Helen was working at Bicycles Unlimited, a bike shop in Peachtree City which has since become the meeting and training ground for Erin’s team. Erin had come in to purchase a bike for Jack. Eventually, Helen started training with Erin’s cycling group on Tuesday nights and soon, she and Erin developed a bond. “You spend a lot of time talking if you’re a woman on a bike,” Helen jokes.
Before long, Helen was joining Erin’s Fight on MS bike rides. She says she knew about the rides, but didn’t really know what MS was about. Helen says she initially started cycling because she just wanted to do something that was challenging, but in the six years since she took up the sport, she and Erin have become inseparable. In fact, the two see each other at least a couple of times a week and text each other with the greeting, “Good morning, Sunshine,” each day.
As Helen talks about her relationship with Erin, it seems the two are more like sisters than friends. “We get these weird vibes from each other,” she says.
In fact, it was a weird vibe that led Helen to call Erin one day last spring. “I texted her, ‘How’s my bestie today’”? Helen recalls. “She texted back, ‘I’m having a bad MS day. I’m on the couch. I literally can’t move.’”
Jack was at work. Helen, who was also at work, offered to leave. But Erin, never one to be pitied, resisted. Despite Erin’s objections, Helen came by later and brought lunch to Erin. She also had to feed her. “I couldn’t stand up,” Erin remembers. “I couldn’t feed myself. My arms wouldn’t work.”
“That was a tough day,” says Helen. “That was the first day I realized this is really serious. It was tough to see her like that.”
Erin has Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis, a form of the disease characterized by flare-ups that are followed by partial or complete recovery periods, or remissions. That means that Erin’s symptoms come and go, and some days are worse than others.
“Every day, you have some type of symptom. It’s very irritating,” Erin says. “Fatigue is one of the biggest symptoms. I can’t exercise by myself very much because I lose vision when I exercise.” That vision loss is another side effect of MS. It’s attributed to something called “Utoff’s phenomenon,” a temporary worsening of symptoms caused by an increase in body tempertature. To counteract this, Erin has taken up running instead of riding her bike. In fact, she ran a half marathon this past April.
Holly Anderson, who owns Bicycles Unlimited with her husband and cycles with the Erin’s Fight team, is amazed by Erin’s resolve. “I ride bikes and run and when I think about being tired or complaining, I think of her and then I don’t have anything to complain about.”
When Erin does ride her bike, she and Jack ride a tandem bicycle, a gift she bought for him in 2000—three years before she was diagnosed with MS. “Guys tend to go fast,” Erin quips. “I bought him the bike to make him stay with me.” For their anniversary in 2009, Jack had orange wheels specially made for the tandem. Orange is Erin’s favorite color.
It’s also the team color. Each team member and supporter wears orange jerseys emblazoned with the team name, Erin’s Fight.
Most recently, Erin’s Fight participated in the Bike MS Cox Atlanta Ride, a two-day ride in Callaway Gardens on September 11th and 12th. It was the team’s sixth year taking part in the ride, with more than 40 participants either riding or volunteering. Jack and Erin, both of whom credit their faith with helping them to deal with Erin’s health challenges, see these bike rides not only as a chance to raise awareness about MS but also to fulfill what they believe is their life purpose. “We view it as our ministry, being encouragers of people who have MS,” says Jack. Erin agrees. “I get to talk God with people who aren’t God people,” she says.
When asked about her hopes for the future, Erin says she’d like to be a positive light in the community. She cites the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the Live Strong Foundation for their success in mobilizing people to fund research and work to find cures for two life-threatening diseases. “I’d like to do something of that magnitude within our own community,” Erin says. “I want to have a bigger impact on the community I live in.” She adds, “People say to me, ‘you don’t look like you have MS.’ I would love the face of MS to be that of someone who doesn’t look like they have MS.”
She remains hopeful, despite the fact that her body reminds her every day that she does, in fact, have the degenerative disease. I ask Erin how she feels about the possibility that she may one day have to rely on a wheelchair to get around. She looks me in the eye, peaceful and relaxed. Then, without missing a beat, she responds, “As long as it has orange flames on it, I’m okay.”
To learn more about Erin’s Fight or to lend your support, visit www.erinsfight.org.
Did You Know?
- Multiple Sclerosis (MS) attacks the central nervous system, which is made up of the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves.
- In MS, the body’s immune system attacks myelin, a fatty substance which protects the nerve fibers in the central nervous system. The damaged myelin forms scar tissue, or sclerosis. When this happens, nerve impulses, which travel to and from the brain and spinal cord, are interrupted, causing a variety of symptoms.
- Symptoms can include fatigue, numbness, balance and coordination problems, and vision problems.
- Women are nearly twice as likely as men to develop MS. Caucasian women have the highest risk.
- There is no evidence to suggest than MS is completely hereditary.
- No two people experience MS the same way. Different people will likely experience very different symptoms, which often makes MS difficult to diagnose.
- The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved medications which have been shown to slow down the effects of MS.
- MS is rarely fatal; in fact, most people who have MS will have a normal or near-normal life expectancy.
To learn more about MS, visit the National Multiple Sclerosis website, http://www.nationalmssociety.org.