Mark Montgomery '98
Mark Montgomery on a mission to help families
dealing with serious illness
By Jennifer Fanelli
Dr. Mark Montgomery '98 always knew he should be helping people.
“It’s just second nature to me,” says the graduate of MVCC’s Human Services program, who earned his bachelor’s degree from SUNY IT in 2001, master’s degree from the University of New England in 2003, and his doctorate in education from Walden University in 2014.
Montgomery is director of Student Success Initiatives at Alfred State College, helping at-risk students. He also is personally dedicated to improving the lives of others.
“I encourage my students to get up and do something different — make the world a better place by making a footprint they can be proud of,” he says. “And I inspire them by doing the same myself. There is well-documented research that shows students respond when they have role models who are walking the walk.”
Or in this case, riding the ride — all over New York State for the Ride for Joe. This is a bicycle ride to raise awareness of Joseph’s Experience, formerly the Montgomery Experience, a charitable corporation Montgomery started. The Experience helps enhance the quality of life for children and people dealing with serious illnesses, such as cancer and leukemia.
“I tell my students that whenever I get on that bike, it is such a feeling of honor and integrity,” Montgomery says. “I’m doing things people choose not to do – things to empower others through action.”
Joseph’s Experience helps families dealing with serious illnesses by providing supportive services and promoting family togetherness. It is named in memory of Montgomery’s brother, Joseph, who died of cancer on Sept. 17, 1996. “He was my older brother, but was more of a father figure to me,” Montgomery says. “Joseph was the definition of life: he was fun, full of laughter, and did not waste today.”
His brother’s death was the catalyst for Montgomery to take action. Montgomery had previously suffered with his own serious illness; in 1993, he was stricken with the pulmonary disease sarcoidosis. “I got so sick I planned my funeral,” Montgomery says. “Joe would spend time with me, take me places, take me fishing. He has had a huge impact on how I serve others.”
After recovering, Montgomery vowed to make a difference, and he launched his nonprofit corporation in 2011. “We aim to provide services, activities, and support 52 weeks a year because suffering doesn’t stop after an event, after a child returns from camp, or a family returns from a weekend away,” he says. “Cancer takes no time off.”
In addition to supportive services, Joseph’s Experience offers a physical retreat in Bridgewater, N.Y., which Montgomery originally built for his wife on land given to him by his father. “She appreciated it, but felt others could benefit more from it somehow,” he says.
The camp allows families to have time away from chemotherapy, doctor’s appointments, medical bills, and “what they perceive as a highly diminished sense of empowerment,” Montgomery says. “We provide real-time responses for people who need us today.”
He says these experiences are especially important for families dealing with a serious illness. “Because many families in these situations end up broken, we encourage familial activities through programming,” he says.
For example, any family can book time at a New York State park for free with Joseph’s Experience providing camping and hiking gear, if needed. The charity also hosts annual activities to bring people together, such as a Fishing Derby and Barbecue, a Christmas party, and a free Christmas tree farm for families dealing with serious illnesses. But perhaps one of the most unique services provided by Joseph’s Experience is the Chemical-Free Garden that honors veterans and those impacted by cancer and leukemia.
The garden, started in 2014 with the help of Michael Latreille, owner of Michael’s Fine Foods in Waterville, provides chemical-free vegetables that are safe for people undergoing treatment.
Montgomery also has spearheaded fundraisers for Joseph’s Experience, including the Cops vs. Celebrities Basketball Tournament, which began in 2012 and has featured local law enforcement officials such as Oneida County Sheriff Rob Maciol, and local celebrities like Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri. And then there is the Ride for Joe, Oneida County’s first bicycle ride for those impacted by cancer and leukemia that also highlights all that law enforcement does to help the community. The inaugural event in August took riders from Bridgewater to the Willowvale Fire Department in Chadwicks. Montgomery says he was inspired to ride his bicycle in every county in New York State to help spread the word.
“(Maciol) handed me a printout of every county sheriff with their phone numbers – and there were 62!” Montgomery says. “I had already announced it, so I started making phone calls and making plans. I take my bike and ride under the theme, if you are impacted by cancer or leukemia, you suffer alone no more.”
He made a lot of progress in just a few months: 22 counties since July! At one point during his ride, Montgomery accepted an invitation to shave his head and stand with 43 members of the Cattaraugus Sheriff’s Department whose undersheriff was battling leukemia. Sadly, the sheriff passed away in October.
Montgomery has had a tremendous response from the families he’s helped, and says he hears from them almost every day. “I also spend a lot of time meeting with families who have children in treatment,” he says. “It’s very fulfilling to my soul because I’m honoring my brother.”
It’s having a great impact on his students. “They say, ‘You’re doing what today? You are amazing.’ I tell them there is nothing amazing about taking the time to serve others,” Montgomery says. “And it’s working, because I am making them think.”
In the spring, Montgomery plans to ride to MVCC. “I want to make sure MVCC is part of the history of this ride,” he says. “Everyone is welcome to join me.”
To join him or to learn more about Joseph’s Experience, visit josephs-experience.com and “Joseph’s Experience Inc.” on Facebook.