Founders, participants look back at 10 years of Walk Hard fundraiser

Alpha Tau Omega brothers walk arm-in-arm during the 2017 Walk Hard event.

Alpha Tau Omega brothers walk arm-in-arm during the 2017 Walk Hard event.

On Friday, another group of Alpha Tau Omega brothers will begin a 130-mile walk from Troy University to Panama City Beach, Florida, all for the purpose of helping military veterans.

This year’s group of 34 walkers is aiming to raise an astounding $60,000 for Jeep Sullivan’s Wounded Warrior Outdoor Adventures, a local nonprofit organization that takes wounded veterans on hunting, fishing and other outdoor bonding trips.

But the annual event, which just reached its 10th year, began with far more modest goals, and a roster reflective of that: just three young men walking for a purpose.

The idea resulted from a lunch meeting between Austin Bivens and Kyle Crabtree, two ATO members who were just ending their freshman years at TROY.

At the time, Bivens and Crabtree were looking for a “signature” service event for ATO in Troy, and as they ate at a local diner, an unusual sight caught their attention.

“We were sitting in the restaurant and we saw this guy walking down Highway 231 in a Superman costume carrying an American flag,” said Crabtree, a 2012 TROY graduate currently working for a software company in Jacksonville, Florida. “We were intrigued, and it sparked a conversation — what is this guy doing? What are his reasons?”

Bivens remembers the conversation quickly evolving into a mutual “lightbulb” moment.

“What if we did something like that? It sparked the idea,” said Bivens, who graduated in 2012 and is working as a nurse in an intensive care group while pursuing his master’s. “Then it’s, where should we walk to? Well, what if we just walked until we couldn’t walk anymore? The beach was a good hike, and we thought it would be a neat idea.”

When the two fraternity brothers presented their idea to others, they weren’t met with much initial support.

“It wasn’t as well received at the beginning,” Bivens said. “In the very beginning, ‘Hey, we’re going to walk six days straight,’ people are like, ‘That’s not a good idea. That’s not going to go well for you.’”

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill addresses the Walk Hard 2019 participants.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill addresses the Walk Hard 2019 participants.

Crabtree recalls receiving resistance to the idea, but eventually some others did pitch in to help.

“There was definitely a lot of pushback, partly because me and Austin had a reputation for wild ideas,” Crabtree said. “This wasn’t our first attempt at something. And secondly, who does that? It’s crazy. It’s silly when you think about it. They didn’t take it seriously. Luckily a few individual brothers helped out, so there was a sense of brotherhood, but no sense of a formalized event.”

The next step was finding a purpose. This was years before ATO made contact with Jeep Sullivan, so Crabtree went to a cause close to his heart: juvenile diabetes.

“One of the guys I was close to at the time said he wouldn’t be able to join us because he’s a diabetic and wasn’t sure he’d be able to stay as healthy as he needed to for this,” Crabtree said. “I thought it was interesting, because he was in much better shape than I was. And then it hit me: let’s do this for diabetes awareness.”

They contacted a local juvenile diabetes camp, and suddenly they had their goal.

They managed to recruit only one other student, Jacob Laan, to walk with them, and the first Walk Hard began in the summer (a mistake they said they learned from, moving the event earlier into the spring).

“We knew the general direction we wanted to head in, but we did not know where we were sleeping that first year,” Bivens said. “We carried everything on our back – food, supplies, etc., and we knew wanted to walk 12 hours a day. We then had to find places to sleep. We’d sleep under a bridge if it looked safe, or in a park. It took those rough couple of years to work things out and get where we are today.”

One of the people who helped evolve Walk Hard into the fundraising success it is today, Dash Merritt, said the fraternity’s alliance with Sullivan’s charity helped turn the corner from struggling to attract participants to having to turn away potential walkers.

“I think the biggest change that happened was finding the right partnership,” said Merritt, a 2017 TROY graduate who participated in Walk Hard for four years, including two as director. “We’ve hopped around and had different charities that we donated to, but when Jeep came into a chapter meeting and talked about what he did, we could see that passion, see that fire, and it was contagious. That was the game changer.”

Walk Hard participants and military veterans reach Pier Park in Panama City Beach, Florida, in 2018.
Walk Hard participants and military veterans reach Pier Park in Panama City Beach, Florida, in 2018.

Since then, Walk Hard has raised more than $100,000 for the nonprofit, serving as its primary fundraising event each year.

Merritt’s time working with Sullivan through Walk Hard was life-changing as well.

He was so inspired by helping others that he now dedicates himself to it fully, working at a Chattanooga, Tennessee-based nonprofit that battles human trafficking.

This legacy of service is what fills the event’s founders with the most pride.

“It’s humbling to see what it is now,” Crabtree said. “Coming on 10 years, we never expected this. We figured it might carry on a few years and be a small event people would think was cool but didn’t want to do, and now there’s a waiting list and they turn people away. These guys love the event even more than we did, and that’s really inspiring. They’ve found something that can be so impactful and that they actually care about, not that they were told to care about.”

To contribute to this year’s Walk Hard fundraiser, click here.