When thousands of Harley-Davidson enthusiasts gear up this year for their annual motorcycle rallies in Sturgis and Laughlin, Lakeland Village resident Dave Rusk will be heading in a different direction for a higher purpose.
The 48-year-old Orange County water-district employee already is planning his longest solo ride yet -- a grueling 7,000-mile trek to the four corners of the continental United States on behalf of the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Orange County and the Inland Empire.
Rusk, who has lived in Lakeland Village on the outskirts of Lake Elsinore for 20 years, uses his life-long love affair with motorcycles to raise awareness of the foundation’s work and help raise cash for its program.
“I ride because I want other children and families to be able to experience and see how a difficult time in life can be changed with one wish,” he said, relaxing in a lawn chair in his garage, his 2007 Ultra Classic motorcycle parked in his driveway.
Playing nearby is Rusk’s 11-year-old nephew, Dylan, a leukemia survivor. Rusk and his wife, Kathy, assumed the role of his parents when Dave Rusk’s brother, Bobby, a single father, died in 2008 at age 41 just two months after being diagnosed with the same disease.
Between chemotherapy and treatment for resulting pancreatitis, Dylan was hospitalized nearly a year.
“One of the good things that came out of this was the Make-A-Wish Foundation,” Rusk said. “Bobby was there for his wish and was involved in it.”
Make-A-Wish started in 1980 with a 7-year-old boy from Phoenix, Ariz., who wanted to be a police officer. Twenty-seven years later, Rusk’s nephew had the same wish granted by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
The foundation arranged for him to become an honorary Orange County Sheriff’s deputy with all the trappings. Dylan got to fly in a Sheriff’s helicopter, sit on a deputy’s motorcycle, operate a bomb-disposal robot, ride one of Sheriff’s Mounted Posse horses, visit the department’s Harbor Patrol and even command a unit of academy cadets.
A special sheriff’s uniform was designed for him and he was issued a miniature badge and department identification and had a swearing-in ceremony conducted by the under-sheriff.
Seeing first-hand the power of granting wishes inspired Rusk to give something back to Make-A-Wish. This year’s “Ride for Wishes” will take Rusk to Key West, Fla.; Madawaska, Maine; Blaine, Wash.; and San Ysidro, Calif.
“The Southern California Motorcycle Association gives you 21 days to visit all four corners (or you don’t get a certificate),” he said. “I’m probably going to leave the last week or so of August.”
Rusk said he pays all his own expenses on the trips, including motel lodging, food, gasoline and tires, when they need replacing.
The road trips began two summers ago with a 12-day trek to Alaska and back.
“I left with a brand new rear tire,” he recalled. “When I got to Idaho Falls coming back home, I was down to the chord. I had to stop and get a new one.”
Last July, Rusk rode from Orange County to New York, stopping at several Make-A-Wish houses along the way. He typically sticks to scenic, two-lane roads, he said.
“But you if you cross the country, you can’t avoid the interstates entirely if you expect to make any time,” he added. “I work for a living, so I do have a time I have to be back.”
Of the previous trips, New York was more harrowing, Rusk said. He stayed in the city only about an hour.
“I’m on my motorcycle and they’re trying to take me out. They didn’t even have weapons, just their vehicles,” he said.
Rusk estimates he has raised nearly $15,000 for Make-A-Wish from his rides. The average cost for one child’s wish is $5,000, he said.
Kathy Rusk is proud of her high-school sweetheart and husband of 24 years.
“He’s doing it to help kids out and I’m behind him,” she said. “As long as I hear from him every night, everything’s fine. It’s just when I can’t get hold of him, I panic, like when he’s out of cell phone range in the middle of nowhere.”
On Feb. 26, Rusk will hold a fundraiser carwash in the Albertson’s parking lot at 32281 Mission Trail from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. All donations will go to Make-A-Wish.
He also has set up a website for making contributions on an ongoing basis. Anyone wishing to do so should visit https://secure.wish.org/ourfriends/007-000/rideforwishes.htm. All proceeds go directly to Make-A-Wish Foundation of Orange County and the Inland Empire.
Donors also can make checks payable to the “Make-A-Wish Foundation” and send them to Make-A-Wish Foundation of Orange County and the Inland Empire, 14232 Red Hill Ave., Tustin, CA 92780. The words “Ride For Wishes” should be included in the memo section.