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Personality: Sandee Smith

Spotlight on chair of 9th Annual Unity Ride for Sickle Cell

4/21/2017, 6:19 a.m.
On a day like any other, Sandee Smith sat at her desk when her friend and soror in Delta Sigma ...

On a day like any other, Sandee Smith sat at her desk when her friend and soror in Delta Sigma Theta Sorority came by with news that deeply affected Ms. Smith.

“She told me that she’d been up with her screaming 1-year-old all night because he was having a crisis in dealing with his sickle cell disease,” Ms. Smith recalls, “and that the doctor in the emergency room … had told her that there was nothing he could do for her infant. She moved back to Maryland, where she said doctors there could help take care of her baby.”

Witnessing her friend’s struggle with sickle cell anemia, an inherited red blood cell disorder that largely impacts people of African descent, pushed Ms. Smith into action. She decided to organize a motorcycle ride from Petersburg to Richmond to raise money for research to find a cure.

That was the start of “Unity Ride for Sickle Cell.”

The 56-year-old South Richmond resident is committee chair of this year’s ride — the ninth annual — that will take place on Saturday, May 6.

All proceeds will benefit the Sickle Cell Association of Richmond-OSCAR and the Florence Neal Cooper Smith Professorship at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine to help with research and to assist families who are financially burdened by medical costs associated with the disease.

“We had about 75 to 100 bikers at the first fundraiser,” Ms. Smith says. “Now we average about 500 participants a year.”

Sickle cell disease impacts about 100,000 people in the United States, with an additional 2 million Americans carrying the sickle cell trait.

The disease causes red blood cells to become rigid and curve into a sickle-like shape, making it difficult for the cells to pass through tiny blood vessels. As a result painful blockages occur that prevent oxygen and vital nutrients in the blood from reaching organs and tissues. In addition to severe pain, the disease can cause tissue damage, organ damage, strokes and other serious complications.

Roughly one in 500 African-Americans are living with the disease, while one in 12 carry the sickle cell trait. One in 36,000 Hispanic Americans are born with sickle cell disease, according to statistics.

Ms. Smith’s interest in motorcycles began at an early age. Both her parents were bikers, she says. As her mother was dying from complications related to lung disease, Ms. Smith promised that she would get her motorcycle license. A few years later, she did, and in 2001, she began her own motorcycle riding group, the Supreme Ladies Motorcycle Club.

The bikers have always had her back, particularly with her efforts on behalf of sickle cell.

“I’ve always been a helper,” Ms. Smith says. “And I knew people in the biking community would come out and support the right cause.”

Ms. Smith says her idea for the Petersburg to Richmond fundraising ride grew when she began talking with two more sorors, Sylvia Alexander-Wall, founder and president of The Ladies of Elegance Inc., and radio personality Miss Community Clovia Lawrence.