Cycling for a cause

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

As with so many things in life, Jon Priest’s involvement with Soaring Wings Ranch and the upcoming Crain Buick GMC Ranch Ride seem to have been inspired from above.

Priest, 28, is the ride coordinator for the inaugural event, scheduled Saturday, June 4. The ride, like the Soaring Wings Half-Marathon, will benefit Soaring Wings Christian Home and Ranch, which “provides a permanent Christ-centered home for children who have been the victims of unfortunate circumstances and just need a chance.”

Jon Priest.

Priest, a therapist from Conway, knew Andrew Watson, the ranch’s founder and executive director, and Dustin Speer, a member of the ranch’s board of directors, from Central Baptist Church. Priest has been involved with the half-marathon, one of the ranch’s major fundraisers, as a volunteer since its inception, and he’s also filled some counseling needs at the ranch as a volunteer.

“I developed more of a heart for the kids,” said Priest, a therapist at Methodist Behavioral Hospital in Maumelle. “It was neat to see kids from the same situations that I encounter at the hospital who, just with the stability of the ranch, all of a sudden are doing so well.”

Like any good administrator, Watson honed in on Priest’s love of riding and asked him to coordinate a bike ride to benefit the ranch. The dreaming and conceptualizing began last summer.

“I liked the idea, but I felt kind of like Moses – maybe there’s a guy who can do this better than me,” Priest remembered. “But my wife and I really felt like it was something we needed to do, not knowing what it would eventually become, what it looks like it is becoming.

“But we were being told we needed to be a part.”

He compared the potential of what the ride could become to the wildly successful half-marathon, which will celebrate its fourth year in October.

“You can start with a couple hundred and end up with thousands in a few years,” he said. “With (the Crain Automotive Team) behind us, we’re set up to do just that.”

According to Priest, the Ranch Ride is the newest cycling event in Central Arkansas. It is scheduled for The Village at Hendrix and will include three courses to accommodate riders of all ability and age levels: an eight-mile family ride through Conway as well as a 34-mile distance route and a 54-mile advanced ride through central Faulkner County. The 34-mile route will go by the ranch in Holland; the 54-miler will travel to Mount Vernon before turning back.

The plan is for riders on all three routes to reach the finish area about the same time, with music, games, vendors and a Kids Zone available there.

Priest is such a believer because he’s seen what the ranch can do – professionally and spiritually.

“I don’t formally consult for the ranch, but I want to be able to help as it grows to make sure the mental health needs are met adequately,” he said. “Sometimes Andrew will bounce things off me. It’s been good to be able to help with that.”

He’s volunteered to lead some young male residents on backpacking trips that he calls “almost a wilderness component of the therapy.”

“I’d like to do more of that, and as the ranch grows, maybe it will work out that I’m employed by them,” he said. “That ministry and my life – at every turn, I have felt them converging, and I think they’ll continue to converge.

“I definitely feel the calling.”

Another entity that has felt the calling has been the Crain Team. Priest had known Jay Myers, general manager at Crain, through the Tour de Rock ride in Little Rock. Both Myers and owner Chris Crain have been involved with the ranch for years.

“Everybody’s got golf tournaments (as fundraisers), and so you’re looking for something different,” said Myers, also of Conway. “I wanted to make it a family fun event, something you can bring your whole family to, and make it a good summertime event, so that’s how we got involved.

“I said we’d like to be the title sponsor. From there, Mr. Crain jumped on board and said, ‘If we’re going to do it, let’s make it big.’”

As the title sponsor, the company wrote a check for $5,000, but Priest said its involvement had gone well beyond that.

“They’ve been such an enormous blessing,” he said. “We expected them to write a check, which would’ve been plenty, but they’ve said, ‘If you’ll throw the party, we’ll make sure everybody shows up.’”

Through other efforts such as marketing, including paying for a commercial to be shown before every movie at the new Cinemark Theatre, Priest said Crain’s financial commitment had more than tripled from its original $5,000.

“We’d love to have to limit the field to 500 riders, but we think it’s realistic to expect 300 this year,” he said. “In terms of money raised through sponsorships and other fundraising, Chris Crain wants to raise $350,000.

“They’ve seen the need,” Priest said. “It’s not like we asked; we’d be afraid to ask for so much, but they’re amazing to have on board. They’re already committed to next year, so in terms of title sponsors, it gets no better.”

Myers said he didn’t know where to start in his praise for the ranch.

“To go out there and see those kids, see the opportunities given to them, to actually talk to them, see where they come from, their diverse backgrounds and hardships – to be able to have that place, those houseparents, the sports, the games, to see the joy on their faces and see how God works … we’re a firm believer in the ranch and what it does for those kids,” he said.

Priest said he’d always ridden bikes, having enjoyed commuting to classes at the University of Central Arkansas when he could.

“But after becoming gainfully employed, I only recently could afford a decent bike,” he said. “So I threw myself into it. I didn’t know much about it, but the great thing is, all you need is a pair of legs and a willingness to accept some discomfort.”

With young children, he said he didn’t really have a formal riding group, but he joins organized rides when possible. He said he got to ride about twice a week – he wishes it were more – and that he tries to squeeze in the occasional ride to work. For that, he takes Highway 365 to Maumelle at about 7 a.m. Otherwise, he tries to get a 40-50 miler in on the weekends and a 30-miler during the week.

For more information about the Ranch Ride, contact Priest at 501.514.0641 or [email protected] or visit