“Pedal, pedal, pedal.”
That’s the refrain avid mountain biker Jimmy Garcia would offer when asked for an update about his cancer treatment. More than a year after losing him, it’s the same mantra Katelyn Garcia repeats alongside their daughter, Ayda, as they build a new life — a life without his physical presence but still so saturated by his tenacious hope.
In November 2020, mere months after Jimmy’s death, hope led Katelyn to fundraise for The Exodus Road in honor of her husband. In a lot of ways, it’s a story that defies expectation: a young widow with a young daughter, in the middle of the most tragically unfair loss imaginable, choosing radical solidarity with others who are suffering. But if you get to know the kind of person Jimmy was, the story makes sense.
“People were what Jimmy was undoubtedly passionate about. Jimmy wanted everybody to love their life,” Katelyn recalls.
That passion was a big part of why Jimmy was immediately captivated by the work of fighting human trafficking. The Garcias first learned about the human rights crisis through hearing survivors, activists, and an FBI agent share at local events. Instantly, Jimmy and Katelyn were fired up, determined to do something.
Katelyn is a hairstylist in Colorado Springs, and in 2015, she started to hear clients talking about The Exodus Road — an anti-trafficking organization headquartered right in the Garcias’ home city. Immediately, the couple was struck by the power and possibility of ordinary heroes, both those supporting financially at home and those going on undercover missions overseas.
“We’d just had our daughter, and it hits differently when you have a little girl,” Katelyn shares. “The other piece that hit home for Jimmy was hearing how young girls are when they’re trafficked. He was a middle school teacher. To think about kids being somewhere other than home and being abused just hit home for him as he connected to the amazing young people in his classroom.”
Jimmy was a dedicated thrill-seeker who fearlessly embraced adventure, so the frontline stories of The Exodus Road operatives were particularly compelling for him. He may not have ever gone overseas on an undercover deployment, but Jimmy was unwaveringly committed to caring for others in every sphere of his life. In addition to being a beloved middle school teacher, he was also a tattoo artist.
Katelyn recalls vividly the way he made everyone feel, whether it was a kid in a classroom or a tattoo client in the chair.
“J. Dean Tattoo Studio turned into his place to love, laugh with, seek understanding, celebrate, and empathize with people right where they’re at.”
But out of all the roles he took on with enthusiastic compassion, there was none he held with as much pride as that of “girl dad.” Jimmy believed girls were worth celebrating, empowering, and championing. That deeply-held core belief strengthened once Ayda was born and he had a daughter of his own.
“Everybody knew that Jimmy believed in kids,” Katelyn says. “All young people loved him back.”
“There’s no giving up in me!”
Jimmy’s care for others didn’t waver when he received a cancer diagnosis in the fall of 2019. Instead, it intensified. “There’s no giving up in me,” he proclaimed. Every time more bad news came from the doctor, the whole family clung to their old anchor phrase just to keep moving: “pedal, pedal, pedal.”
“Cancer seemed like such a short, aggressive, straight downward spiral for Jimmy,” says Katelyn. “We never got to take one step back towards an active life, but no matter what Jimmy was experiencing, his hope stood strong.”
For the Garcias, the free-fall goodbye passed in six terrifyingly fast months. Those months concluded in the middle of the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Katelyn returned home without her husband and without the ability to safely see family and friends.
In the aftermath of losing Jimmy, Katelyn existed in the tension of two realities: gratitude for the tremendous light that he had offered the world and unspeakable grief for losing him so soon. Due to the pandemic, there was not even the closure of a normal memorial service.
“It was so lonely and dark,” she admits.
As she returned to a new normal as a single working mom, Katelyn was left trying to find a way to make peace with her impossible new reality.
“People do things that are superhuman when they’re in the middle of the worst thing they’ve ever been through,” she muses. “They rake up the vulnerable words to share in a book, or they conquer some impossible physical feat when grief makes it easier to stay in a puddle on the floor. We are capable of so much if we press into the struggle and gather some grit to dig deeper. I’m realizing my favorite people are those who have walked through fire and turned it into good for the sake of someone else. I felt this extreme need to find a way to help others.”
When she heard about The Exodus Road’s movement to say that “kids should $NEVER be sold,” it felt like a step forward in the cataclysm of grief. Her role on Jimmy’s behalf became clear: “We all know that Jimmy believed in youth. He believed in truly living, not just existing.”
When deciding how to share a fundraiser with her community that captured that love for life, Katelyn chose to start with a simple request for $55 donations. 55 had been the racing bib number during Jimmy’s final supermoto bike races, a figure he chose because it was the sum of the numerals in Ayda’s birth date. In this way, the whole family would be a part of the story.
When Katelyn shared her fundraiser on social media, she didn’t know how people would respond.
“I was worried because everyone had already been so generous with us. We had seen what happens when we come together and give what we can, or even just share a GoFundMe page. It was mind-blowing and humbling,” she admits. “I also remember having this crazy confidence that people would do this for Jimmy, in his memory. When he stood for something, I knew others would stand with him, with us.”
The Garcias’ community did more than just show up. They blew expectations away, propelling Katelyn and Jimmy’s campaign to become the highest-earning $NEVER fundraiser in 2020. Katelyn’s friends and local community participated, as did family, old friends, Jimmy’s community at Fountain Middle School, and people connected to Jimmy whom Katelyn had never even met.
Many donors gave the suggested $55. Some gave more. But many also gave less. Some of Jimmy’s students who were still in school gave their spending money. Every dollar drove home what the Garcia family believes in: hope.
Part of Katelyn was overwhelmed. Part of her wasn’t surprised at all. This was just Jimmy’s wholehearted nature at work, even in his absence.
In the end, that’s what made Katelyn’s $NEVER fundraiser so impactful. It was a reverberating echo of the kind of person Jimmy was: an ordinary person with extraordinary impact. As Katelyn says, it’s proof that when you show up to love others with abandon, the effect it can have is eternal.
In the aftermath: love tattooed
It’s been two years since the cancer diagnosis that changed everything and over a year since Jimmy’s passing. Adya just recently turned 6 years old, and she still wears her $NEVER shirt with pride. It connects her to her father. Ayda often eagerly asks her mom about who her Papa was to the community around them: old high school friends, motorcycle and racing connections, students spanning 14 years, YMCA kids that he cared for, kids that he coached, tattoo clients, and the Garcias’ large extended families. Jimmy’s boat was large, and he welcomed everyone aboard.
“I have no doubt that if Jimmy were here, he would have launched this fundraiser on his own,” Katelyn says. “I know he would have taken this chance to impact the world in his most gentle way.”
During his life, Jimmy tattooed people from all walks of life. His legacy of love is still permanently stamped on this world, the same way his tattoos are.
That truth is about to be confirmed all over again. Katelyn has launched a new $NEVER fundraiser for 2021, again propelled by who Jimmy was. The grief is less raw this year, and the loss is less of an overwhelming ache.
But the anchor of hope is solid, and the connection to the abundant kind of life Jimmy lived remains as strong as ever. His profound empathy rides on, pedaling its way through the high and low places of this world.