Thomas Brown and Zachary Chipps met as co-workers in the Scottsdale, Ariz., parks and recreation department. They had the same interests in music and were going through breakups with their girlfriends at the same time.
But, at some point, they learned they had something else in common.
Each had lost a brother to suicide and was still struggling to come to terms with what happened.
Several years later, the two used their common experience of loss to form a nonprofit organization, RISE Phoenix, with RISE standing for Revolution Inspired by Self Evolution.
In March, Brown and Chipps set out from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco — inspired by the documentary “The Bridge” about suicides there — for a 7,000-mile, cross-country bike trip that will end in September at the Chapel of Sacred Mirrrors, an art museum in Wappengers Fall, N.Y.
The men will visit 21 states and 110 cities to meet with survivors of suicide, support groups and art communities.
“It is our intention to help provide a different bridge, a healing bridge that unites people and groups, letting them know they’re not alone,” Brown said in a news release.
On Monday, the two men were in Baton Rouge to visit with the staff of the Baton Rouge Crisis Intervention Center, as well as with local survivors of suicide.
The Golden Gate Bridge they left almost four months ago “has a dark connotation to us. We left from a place of ending and death and are ending ... in a place of rebirth,” Thomas said, referring to the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors.
At its website, http://www.cosm.org, the chapel is described as a sanctuary celebrating visionary art.
“We are about suicide awareness and the healing power of art,” Chipps said.
Brown said the men aren’t referring only to the traditional arts, such as music, dance or painting.
“If you truly know who you are, you can hear your calling. As soon as you know that, that is when the true artist in each and everyone of us comes out,” Brown said. “The goal is to create your life. Be the best artist and sage you can be.
“One thing we can promise: we don’t have any answers. We have our story,” Brown said, addressing the group after lunch at the center. “Everyone has their own journey, and there’s no timeline for that journey.”
Brown lost his older brother Marc Brown in 2001. Chipps lost his older brother Sean Chipps in 2005.
Brown recounted how he buried his feelings of grief for two years, focusing on the loss as it affected his parents.
But eventually, “I had a full-blown freak-out. I cried every single day, every day for six months,” he said.
He managed to move out of the depression, in part by participating in a cross-country, mission walk organized by his parents’ church.
Brown, who had gone to a community film school, did the video for the walk, skills that would come in later when RISE Phoenix was born.
Brown had later found himself sinking into another period of depression, when he met Chipps at work.
“It was the first time I met someone who lost a brother to suicide,” Brown said. “My world opened up, and I was so grateful.”
When Chipps, an avid biker, learned about Brown’s earlier cross-country for a church project, he suggested the two do a bicycle tour with a purpose: They’d undertake the journey for their brothers.
“I finally accepted that I was part of the (survivor) community and had an obligation to share and help heal” others, Brown said.
Brown took six months to get in shape, and the men began organizing the journey, a process that took about a year.
The two left their jobs, began raising money for the tour and partnered with the nonprofit EMPACT – Suicide Prevention Center of Tempe, Ariz., Chipps said.
He told the Baton Rouge suicide survivors group that the idea for a bike trip for a cause actually came to him almost immediately after he lost his brother seven years ago.
Because of his job, Chipps had to leave his family too quickly after the funeral, driving from his hometown in Nebraska to Denver to catch a flight to Phoenix.
It was a long, hard drive.
“I had to stop numerous times” to grieve, he said.
He began to think about making a yearly biking pilgrimage from Phoenix to his brother’s burial place.
“But that didn’t resonate. That grave is not where my brother is,” Chipps said.
When Chipps and Brown began to organize RISE Phoenix, it was the right answer, Chipps said. “For me it was sharing our stories and learning from stories.”
In the process of planning for the bike trip, Chipps attended a suicide survivors support group meeting for the first time, and learned “I was still angry, after five years” about the suicide.
He thinks his love of biking helped him.
“It moves you forward, gets you through mental blocks. When I was riding those five years, when I was angry with my brother, it saved my life,” Chipps said.
“The day I saw my mother bury her firstborn son, it set a hard-line path for me in this life: No matter what, I would be strong,” Chipps said. “For me, it’s been a strengthening process” like being forged in fire.
At his visit in Baton Rouge, Chipps noted there were several men in the local group.
“It was pointed out to us by a lady in Colorado that not a lot of men talk about their feelings,” Chipps said.
“Ninety to ninety-five percent of the people we talk with are females.”
Buddy Knox, who attended the local event, commended the men for speaking about an issue that still carries a strong social stigma, though awareness seems to have improved over the years, he said.
Knox lost a son to suicide in 1994. In 1980, he had lost an uncle to suicide.
“People feel like they don’t know what to say,” Knox said. “That’s all right. Just be there.”
On their cross-country bike trip, Chipps and Brown take turns riding in a relief truck that carries their gear, each biking anywhere from 35 miles to 50 miles per day.
Chipps said he and Brown thought the physical toll of biking for miles each day “would be the hardest part of the tour.
“Now it’s our break, a chance to decompress” from the stories of loss they hear in their travels.
They may not remember every name of the people they meet, but “I remember the feelings,” Chipps said.
“I’m filled with gratitude for the people we’ve met,” Brown said.
“It’s been amazing, it’s been exhausting,” Chipps said of the tour.
The survivor groups and support centers in communities across the country are vital, Brown said.
“You guys are doing amazing work in this community,” he said of the work of the Baton Rouge Crisis Intervention Center, which assists people struggling with grief, loss and bereavement.
“We’re not done at the end of September. It’s just the beginning,” Chipps said of RISE Phoenix.
Information about the men’s journey can be found at http://www.risephoenix.org.