FLY BRAVE - On Brave Wings we Rise
By Justin Pinnell
I stopped in at Elk Grove Vitamins to see the proprietor, Dianna Singh, and to pick up some health essentials that my family needed. When I entered the store, Dianna was clearing a section of the wall and bubbling with excitement. Being the curious sort, I asked her what all the excitement was about (cleaning NEVER puts me in a good mood). Dianna said that Elk Grove Vitamins was going to carry a new line of clothing, Fly Brave.
Dianna then proceeded to tell me about Fly Brave… and the amazing people that make up Fly Brave’s remarkable organization. After being inspired by Dianna, I asked her to help me get in contact with the organization. Let me introduce you to Vanessa Bieker, John Almeda, and Fly Brave’s inception.
Vanessa Bieker is the mother of John (who is a true inspiration) and the founder of Fly Brave. Vanessa talked about Fly Brave beginnings, “When my son John, who is a runner and happens to have non-verbal autism, was aging out of the school system at 22 years old; I began searching for programs to continue his growth and steps to independence into adulthood. Coming up short, I left my career behind to build a foundation for John and others like him in our community, to build upon their strengths and talents to live a purpose-filled life. I could not do this alone.
Dedicated Board of Directors, community members, friends, and parent volunteers became a village that consisted of those who share the same vision. In fact, we just celebrated our 5th year in operation on January 21, 2021.
Basically, John and I grew up together…I was just 22 years old when he was diagnosed at 18 months of age. Though I was a single mom who worked full time and attended college at night, my quest to give John a purpose-filled life was a priority.
When John was diagnosed, I went through a roller coaster ride of emotions. However, I didn’t sit there long; I got up and became pro-active in making sure he experienced everything life had to offer. There wasn’t much support in the early 90’s. I joined a parent support group where I met a therapist who told me the best thing I could do for him was to immerse him in the world; to give him every life experience possible to help him navigate through the world of autism. I took that information to heart and over the next two decades, we would become explorers.
We found his gift of running in 2014, when we were out for a walk and stumbled upon a high school track. John experienced the normal pains of puberty and our evening strolls gave him a sense of calm. However, this time he was different. After running around that track several times, his anxiety lessened and instead of getting up throughout the night, he slept a full eight hours uninterrupted.
Consequently, John joined the Sacramento County Chargers Special Olympics Track and Field team and wowed the community with his 5-minute mile. He went on to run in 5/10k races and his dream got bigger. John wanted to run in the Boston Marathon. He watched it annually on the news. He began running half marathons, 20 milers, and eventually his first full marathon, CIM, (California International Marathon), on Dec 3, 2017, in hopes he could qualify for the Boston Marathon. During his run, John sustained a broken ankle during the marathon around mile 6. Yet, he was determined to finish and he did. Despite his injury, he qualified for the Boston Marathon, completing the 26.2-mile race in 4 hours and 27 minutes. On December 2, 2018, John ran CIM once again to upgrade his time for Boston and finished in 3:17! John ran the 2019 Boston Marathon on April 15th, in 3:52; sponsored by Total Nutrition and coached by Darren Morgan, Fleet Feet Racing. The Eppie’s Wellness Foundation sponsored Darren’s way to Boston.
After achieving his Boston goal John wasn't done. He has turned his passion for running into a professional career. He ran in the Boston Qualifying Revel race series, completing the Big Bear Marathon, his first mountain race that began at 6700 ft in elevation without a guide, on November 9. 2019, and finished in 3:28. He qualified for Boston once again! He will re-run Boston in April 2021 and if that is canceled, he is scheduled to run the Revel race series Park City, UT Marathon on May 1, 2021; a smaller race of 400 athletes. On February 29, 2020, he ran the Salmon Falls 50K, a 31- mile trail race. He finished in under 5 hours and came in the top 15 runners.While he was set to run AR50, a 50 MILE TRAIL RACE. Sadly, on April 4, 2020, COVID-19 canceled the run along with all of his other scheduled races for the year. This didn’t stop his training. He is still out on the trails 3-4 days a week preparing for the day he can once again take his place at the starting line. He has set his sights on running the Western States 100-mile race one day.
He receives messages of encouragement and appreciation from all over the world. His story is one of hope and inspiration and his message remains the same, he is first a runner, who happens to have non-verbal autism. He holds a job, has found love with his girlfriend Drea (they just celebrated their 2-year anniversary) and is a professional athlete. Non-verbal autism doesn’t define him. You can do anything you put your mind to, regardless of your disability so NEVER GIVE UP!
Fly Brave was created in January of 2016, in response to a need for the continued support for adults with developmental disabilities following the school years. Fly Brave started with five families and today serves over 250. Over the last five years, Fly Brave has established community-based employment training programs (landscaping and a pop-upmarket), a public speaking network of self-advocates, social skills workshops, numerous events (proms, karaoke, Fashion Shows, Talent Show, Art Shows), a successful micro-business (online Etsy shop), fitness programs (running club, yoga, fitness in the park, Sky High Sports meets ups), police involvement fitness program (Fly Fit) which started with the Elk Grove Police Dept., art and theater programs, and community integration through volunteerism.
ALL of the programs are offered FREE OF CHARGE through grants, donors, corporate sponsors, and businesses like Elk Grove Vitamins who sell Fly Brave merchandise that is created in our Art and Design program.
John’s story truly inspired me, because I wanted to help I returned to Elk Grove Vitamins when their first shipment of inspirational shirts arrived. I purchased one for my daughter that turned out to be a favorite saying of Dianna's—DO NOT DISTURB my peace, my joy, my grind, my whole entire vibe.
Thank you—Dianna, and Vanessa for helping others and making a real difference in this world!
You can purchase Fly Brave's custom t-shirts at Elk Grove Vitamins. To learn more about the amazing ways Fly Brave is helping the community visit www.flybrave.org.