Words by Joy Burgess
Photos used by permission of the Open Road Angels and North Lake Bear Trap Pub & Grill
My mom was recently diagnosed with cancer for the second time, so when I happened across the press release for the Annual Pink Heels Pink Heals Poker Run, it had my full attention. Always a fan of how women continue to make waves in the motorcycle industry, I had to talk to Open Road Angels President Julie Banaszak to learn more about what these amazing ladies are doing. We chatted for more than an hour, and when we were done, I had tears in my eyes. You see, there’s a reason they call this lady the “Iron Angel.”
Julie Banaszak, founder and president of the Open Road Angels women’s motorcycle group, started riding at three years old. “I rode mini bikes up and down a dirt road,” she told me. “Then, I progressed to the motocross bikes and used to run trails out in the country. When I had my kids, I had to take a break for a bit, but once they were older and I was divorced, I started riding again.” Since then, she’s spent time riding Road Kings, Fat Boys, and more. And this lady has put in thousands of miles in the saddle, doing 16,000 miles in just four months a few years ago.
Formerly a member of another women’s riding group, disapproval for what Julie wore and how she rode resulted in demotion, and ultimately, she left the group. Undaunted, her desire to ride, build camaraderie with other women, and help people led to her starting the Open Road Angels.
While the Open Road Angels are about women riding together and helping other ladies get started in motorcycling, their main goal is helping other people. Since Julie first started the group, they’ve been all about reaching out to their community. The first Open Road Angels benefit ride was for a local man who lost a leg in a car accident, and the money they raised with that ride paid for the cost of his prosthetic leg that wasn’t paid for by the insurance company. None of the ladies knew this man; they just heard about his need and wanted to help him.
After that first benefit ride, they realized they wanted to keep helping people, so they organized a poker run to help bring awareness to the Pink Heals nonprofit. Cancer is a very personal subject for Julie. “Both of my parents died of cancer, I’m a three-time cancer survivor, and my middle daughter is a cancer survivor as well,” she said. “Most people have some link to a friend, family member, or someone who has been hit by this horrible disease. So, if I can help these people, it’s what I love doing.”
Pink Heals is a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization with chapters around the country that raises funds to help people with all types of cancer. What makes Pink Heals different from other cancer charities is that money raised stays local, and the program offers home visits to individuals with cancer to show them they’re important and loved. According to Pink Heals, they “…bring back the human element by celebrating people, not causes.”
On July 27, 2019, the Open Road Angels teamed up with Pink Heals once again, doing their 3rd poker run to raise funds for cancer. They not only doubled their number of riders this year but they also more than doubled the amount of money they raised. The 2019 ride brought in a total of $5,700 for the local chapter of Pink Heals.
Beyond the annual Pink Heals poker runs, this group of big-hearted women has also done teddy bear runs for the local children’s hospital, special donations to local homeless shelters, and they did their first ride for veterans last year. This year, they’re turning their second Annual Ride for Veterans into a big block party to get the entire community involved. Julie told me, “My dad was a Korea vet, so I wanted to do this. There are so many people out there that fought for us, and it’s our time to fight for them.”
It’s Julie’s passion for helping people that fuels what the Open Road Angels have done for their community. “I’ve always had a passion for riding, and I’ve always liked helping people. Doing what I love to do – moto and helping people – well, that’s like a dream come true for me. People often call me the “Iron Angel,” and I just love that warm feeling I get inside when I’m able to help people and give back.”
Women’s motorcycle groups are growing, and they’re doing some awesome stuff these days. But what stands out about the Open Road Angels is that they’re a group of women who love to ride, they’ve taken that love of riding and combined it with a passion to help others, making a huge difference in their community. And before my conversation with Julie ended, she told me this, “we’d like to do something to help your mom.” Just like that, I had tears in my eyes. She doesn’t know me, she doesn’t know my mom, but still, she wanted to reach out to someone else battling cancer. There’s no doubt; she’s an angel on a Harley.