Each month, the Respect 90 Foundation will salute a distinguished volunteer from the communities of Tampa Bay, Chicago, Mesa Arizona or Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Respect 90 will present a $1,000 grant to that volunteer’s charity of choice. Should you have someone who is deserving, please let us know.
Mike Bates | Quantum Leap Farm
It’s the only way to describe how Mike Bates got from Brunswick, Ohio to Quantum Leap Farm in Odessa, Florida.
In the middle of his inspirational journey, there was a wrinkle. Actually, a tremor. Mike’s right hand had been slowly weakened by muscle spasms for several years. Unfazed, he did what any self-respecting, self-made, old-style, stubborn Midwesterner would do… he learned to use his left hand.
Until finally, his wife, Patty had seen enough. She noticed some other subtle signs. It was time to see a doctor.
Two months after their youngest of four boys, Jamie, had graduated from high school, Mike and Patty visited a neurologist near their home in Spring Hill, Florida.
Up to that point, Mike’s life had been a story of hard work and dedication. It began in 1982 when he was in his early twenties and an avid Cleveland Indians fan, unsure of what life had in store for him. A neighbor and fatherly friend, Jim Wohlfiel, called.
Would Mike want to join him in a start-up trucking business in Florida?
“I didn’t have anything else going on. I had been doing (auto) body work, working as a mechanic. So why not?” he asked himself.
Off they went down I-75, each behind the wheel of a dump truck totaling a combined seven tons and nearly 1,000 horsepower.
Mike did so with two suitcases and $1500 to his name.
“We started the business with four of us and at first we did everything,” he recalled. “Drove the trucks during the day and repaired them at night.”
It wasn’t long until Mike met Patty and started a family. He became a dedicated family man, a stern, but loving father to his boys.
And, soon he found himself the co-founder of a trucking company in Spring Hill that had grown from three trucks and four employees to 39 and 150, billing at times close to $3 million per month.
With it, came stress. Managing the company for 26 years included many 24/7 weeks and it was that stress- the doctors said – that led to their diagnosis in the neurologist’s office that July afternoon.
Mike had primary progressive multiple sclerosis. The year was 2009, he was 48 years old.
PPMS is an autoimmune disease where the body attacks itself, causing problems with walking, weak and stiff legs, balance trouble, muscle pain and fatigue. It is defined as a relatively slow and steady disease and while many people live with it for years without severe disability, it is a life-changer.
“Doctors said it was in my body for years, but was dormant. The stress is what activated it. I come from a family of six. I was the only one with it. Thank God,” he said.
Six months later, Mike retired.
Around that same time, Patty heard from a friend about MS patients responding well to horseback riding therapy. She asked their doctor. He had not recommended it, but knew of a horse farm somewhere in nearby rural Odessa.
It was with the aid of her GPS and a boundless determination to help her husband that took her along the winding, wooded country roads that brought her to Quantum Leap Farm.
“I didn’t think he would go for it,” says Patty. Happily, she was wrong.
“Except for maybe a birthday party or camping a couple of times, I had never ridden a horse before,” admitted Mike. “But I saw this place and fell in love with it. Fell in love the horses. Everything about it.”
Mike quickly took to riding and can still recall the name of his first mount, a chestnut colored, patient gelding named Tampa.
But with 18-hour work days his norm, Mike found himself wanting to do more. “I’m not a sit-around the house-kind-of-guy,” he assesses.
He first volunteered to muck the horse stalls. Then just started fixing things. He would eventually help install fencing, repair broken structures and conduct general maintenance. Eleven hundred volunteer hours later, he’s still at it.
“We had an old tractor when I first started,” Mike recalled, “and it would break down and I would go over and get it running and it would break down and I would fix it again. They looked at me and asked, ‘You can drive the tractor?’”
Thanks to a generous donor, Quantum Leap soon got a new one. No one was more excited than Mike.
“I told them I would take care of this place on the tractor, but it’s my tractor, “he said.
On Fridays he participates in equine-assisted therapy and Mondays it’s Mike and his tractor mowing 20 acres of Quantum Leap’s pastureland and riding trails.
“I put my headphones on (old school rock and roll),” he says “and get lost out there. It’s amazing what it does for me.”
His Mondays start with a 21-mile drive from his home in Springhill that leads to a 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. volunteer shift.
Mike’s mowing alone has saved the farm over $7,000 a year over the past eight years.
Says Quantum Leap’s Founder and Executive Director Edie Dopking, PhD, “Mike has a limitless drive to achieve. His generous spirit and expertise as a business owner make him an invaluable part of our farm family. He gives us every bit as much as he receives from us.”
“Who knew where I would be?” he asks. “I could have sat down and said ‘Woe is me,’ but this place, this gave me something to live for, a reason for me to get up in the morning. I call it my slice of heaven.”
“I can’t fully explain the impact this place has had on my life,” he says with emotion. “The people here are such wonderful people. Like anyone else, I know they have their bad days, but you would never know it. They are always positive, supportive, cheerful.
“My doctor says I am the poster child for MS, they wonder how I am still on my feet.”
Mike knows why. “Thank God my wife found this place and thank God they opened their arms to me.”
What can he expect in the days ahead? “It’s hard to say,” Mike said recently. “I may wake up one morning and not be able to walk or not able to speak or be blind. We just don’t know.”
There is one thing Mike and Patty do know. They know Mike’s mantra: “I’m gonna fight until you knock me down and then I am going to get up again until I get knocked down again. My world is not over.”
And, he will do it with a smile and with the help of a horse and a tractor.