covering our community

Four years of awareness

This year’s SamJam event raised $7,200 to help fund research to find a cure for FA | Photo by Ariana Villegas

After being diagnosed with Friedreich’s ataxia (FA) at age 15 and eventually becoming confined to a wheelchair, University of Portland senior Sam Bridgman has spent his four years on The Bluff raising awareness for FA through events, and has raised over $28,365 to help fund a cure for this rare disease.

Senior Sam Bridgman on the court for the second annual SamJam event | Photo by Ariana Villegas

Senior Sam Bridgman on the court for the second annual SamJam event | Photo by Ariana Villegas

For his continued efforts, Bridgman was awarded the Student Leadership Award at the annual Student Activities banquet by his peers on April 22.

Fundraising aside, Bridgman has become one of UP’s most well-known students, and has touched the lives of everyone who has met him with his infectious smile and personality. Bridgman adopted the mantra “Impossible is nothing,” even getting it tattooed to him arm, and lives his life wearing a smile.

On April 16, Bridgman and the University of Portland hosted the second annual SamJam wheelchair basketball event to raise awareness and money to find a cure for FA.

“To me, the goal of SamJam is you’re not raising money prior to the event, you’re mainly trying to raise awareness for a disease that does not get very much attention,” he said.

      Read the Storify of the event:

Raising money for a cure

For people like Bridgman, suffering from a life-ending disorder without a cure can be discouraging. But Bridgman has spent the past four years actively raising awareness and money to fund research to find a cure.

Bridgman has been a part of Friedreich’s Ataxia Research Alliance (FARA) for five years, but never believed he would raise as much a he has. As awareness grew, he has quickly become one of the most recognizable faces on campus and an advocate for fundraising to find a cure in Portland.

The fundraising started out small, when Bridgman and a few of his friends put on a bake sale their freshman year that raised $620.

“We thought it was the coolest thing ever,” Bridgman said.

The following year, UP alum and baseball player Sam Westendorf suggested the SamJam event in honor of Bridgman and his involvement with the baseball team as manager.

“We threw it together in like three weeks in 2011, and there were like 500 people there.
We thought like 50 people would come,” Bridgman said.

After the first SamJam’s success, raising $6,305.35, it became an annual event. Bridgman’s fundraising efforts increased as awareness of FA grew in the UP community and in Portland.

“A big part of funding the research is raising awareness. you have to raise awareness for people to want to fund the research. So the first step is raising awareness,” he said.

Last September, Bridgman stepped off The Buff and teamed with FARA to put on Ride Ataxia, a bike ride around Sauvie’s Island. Bridgman was the top fundraiser, raising $14,860. Overall, the event  raised $58,652.

“I love talking to people. Being in a university environment where I don’t really have to think about the challenges I have to face when i get down to the nitty gritty,” Bridgman said.

Listen to Bridgman and friend JR Bunda talk about
Bridgman’s impact on the UP community:

Bridgman’s love of talking to people has led him to meet and make lasting friendships with many, including senior baseball player Michael Lucarelli. Lucarelli was particularly touched by Bridgman, after his own brother, who was in a wheelchair, died of cancer.

“He touched my son’s heart,” Frank Lucarelli said. “It hit home with him.”

Lucarelli wanted to do more for Bridgman, and asked his dad, who trains and races horses, if he had any horses that he could name after Bridgeman’s foundation, Seek a Miracle. He did,  but “Seek a Miracle” was already taken. So Lucarelli named the horse “SamJam” in honor of the event, and donates 10 percent of SamJam’s earnings to finding a cure. After racing just six times, SamJam has earned $11,048. At this year’s SamJam event, Frank Lucarelli and his wife presented Bridgman with a check for $1,148 and a picture of the horse.

“Hopefully he’ll keep racing and making money for his foundation,” Lucarelli said.

The future of SamJam

As Bridgman graduates from UP this May, the future of SamJam is unknown. The Student Athletic Advisory Committee (SAAC) has coordinated the event for the past two years, and junior Kelsey Bestall has been the main coordinator after Westendorf graduated last spring. According to Bestall, they would like to host the event again next year, but only if Sam wants to do it again. She and the committee are still in the initial planning phases about other events to feature other students if SamJam is not possible for next year.

What is FA?

When people hear Friedreich’s ataxia, most have no idea what it is. The few people that know what ataxia means know that it has something to do with losing control of your bodily movements. According to the Friedreich’s Ataxia Research Alliance, Friedreich’s ataxia is a “debilitating, life-shortening, degenerative neuro-muscular disorder.”

FA is a genetic disorder affecting one in 50,000 Americans. Patients have trouble producing Frataxin, which is a protein that helps in the production of energy, to state it in simple terms. Onset symptoms can be visible anytime from childhood to adulthood.

Symptoms are all physical and include diabetes, loss of coordination, fatigue, scoliosis, and more. There is no cure or treatment for patients with Friedreich’s Ataxia; their symptoms are only monitored. Surgical intervention is sometimes needed. This is mainly for the spine and the heart because those are the most affected when a patient is diagnosed.

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