By JEN CARDINES
Residents clad in leather jackets mingled with kids and families under a tent at the center of town. Main Street was lined with motorcycles, and the parking lot behind the Elk’s Lodge was overflowing with bikes and riders.
On Sunday morning, the center of town was engulfed in a thunderous roar as hundreds of motorcycles fired up their engines for the final, 50-mile “Ride4Justin.” It marked the end of a 12-year journey.
Justin Wisniewski (Oct. 11, 1986 to April 3, 2005) was a lifelong Southington resident. He died in the line of duty shortly after joining Southington Fire Department Co. 1. He was 18 years old.
The following year, his older brother Matt Wisniewski (who is currently the volunteer captain at Co. 1) proposed a scholarship in Justin’s honor, and the Justin Wisniewski Firefighter Scholarship Fund was born. The fund has been supported by the annual Ride4Justin fundraiser, but in its 12th year, the family decided that Sunday would mark the final ride.
“The ride has done really well for us,” said Wisniewski. “The Board of Directors did an amazing job and made sure we had a fund that would go on forever.”
On March 30, Wisniewski’s mother, Jill Auburn Wisniewski, submitted a letter on the fundraiser’s Facebook page announcing that the 2017 ride would be the last one.
“This was not an easy decision, but we feel that it is what is best for us, and the Ride,” she wrote. “Because of the overwhelming support of the volunteers, sponsors, businesses and the amazing biking community the Justin Wisniewski Firefighter Scholarship Fund will be able to continue presenting scholarships to deserving recipients for many years to come.”
Each year, four scholarships are awarded to a firefighter or spouse, sibling or child of a firefighter that volunteers in the community. A fifth scholarship goes to either a Boy Scout or Girl Scout from Southington High School because Justin was an Eagle Scout that devoted much time to volunteering in the community.
“Justin’s life was volunteering, that was his calling,” his brother said. “Joining the Fire Department was the next level of volunteerism in the community.”
“Our extent of volunteering was small prior to Justin’s accident, but it was starting this scholarship and getting involved with the motorcycle community that made us realize there were so many more opportunities to help,” his mother’s letter stated.
Historically, Ride4Justin has drawn hundreds of riders and community members that support the fund. The inaugural ride on May 7, 2006 saw 300 bikers with more joining each year, and on May 7, 2017, one dozen rides were completed. A total of 440 attendees filled the Elk’s Lodge for the final fundraiser, Wisniewski said.
The 50-mile route starts in downtown Southington and goes through Bristol, Burlington, Terryville, Harwinton, and Thomaston before circling back by the fire school where Justin’s accident occurred. His brother said that every fire department they pass along the ride gives off some sort of gesture to honor the fallen firefighter.
It was a fitting end for the ride, and the journey finally reached its goal: a fully-funded scholarship to keep Justin’s community service alive for years to come.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Jen Cardines, email her at JCardines@SouthingtonObserver.com.
Photos by Kelly May Del Debbio