Friday marks a somber anniversary for a family in Bethesda. It was July 31, 2019, when 17-year-old Jake Cassell was struck by a car and killed while riding his bicycle on Old Georgetown Road.
The accident happened just blocks from his family's home.
"I can't put into words what it's like to lose a child, but he was so beautiful and an incredible blessing to everyone who ever met him, and we were so lucky to have him in our life," said Jake's father, Steve Cassell. "Barely a week or two goes by without us getting a letter from a random person I didn't even know, talking about how Jake changed their life -- with the way he affirmed them, the way he loved them, the way he would take time to just see them as human."
Jake was born with autism, but his family says he was never defined by it. He served as the mascot at Churchill High School and was beloved by his classmates and teachers. He'd been on international mission trips and worked as a counselor at a camp for children with special needs. He was also well on his way to earning the rank of Eagle Scout.
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"He had his struggles as a boy with autism, but he had this incredible, kind, empathetic, loving soul that is very rare," said Cassell. "He's with me every minute of the day, and I talk to him all the time."
The bond between father and son is a big part of the reason why Cassell will honor the anniversary of his son's death with a special bike ride.
"Jake and I had been spending a lot of time bicycling together in the months and years leading up to his accident," he said. "We'd been planning a 50 mile ride to Mount Vernon, to check one of the boxes for his cycling merit badge, and we never had the chance to do that."
So when Cassell recently learned about a nonprofit called 'Bike to the Beach', he instantly thought of Jake. According to its website, the organization hosts charity bike events as part of its mission "to promote bicycle riding, raise funds, and make an impact on the community affected by autism".
Then Cassell learned that 'Bike to the Beach' was holding a local event on July 31, 2020: the anniversary of Jake's death.
"I'm like okay, it's a fundraiser for the special needs community, it's bicycle oriented, and it's on the exact day my son was hit. I just knew that was from the lord. That was not random," said Cassell. "And it was a chance for us to team up and raise money for the scholarship fund we started at The Diener School in Jake's honor."
The Diener School focuses on multi-sensory education for students in kindergarten through 8th grade. Jake spent four years there as an elementary school student, and his father says he excelled there.
"Kids on the autism spectrum have a completely different learning style," said Cassell. "And he had an incredible experience there, having started as a third grader and previously having a hard time with public school, being overwhelmed, too much going on, and just too many kids in each class. Diener has a very high teacher to student ratio. There's usually about two to three teachers in a classroom and five to six kids. And the amount of hands on, customized education and occupational therapy and different physical therapies they receive is just extraordinary. It was transformative for Jake."
The Jake Cassell Scholarship Fund will assist families with the financial costs that come with sending their child to The Diener School.
"The objective of the fund is to help families with economic challenges or lesser financial means to be able to send their beautiful child to the school," said Cassell. "We were able to do our first scholarship this year, for a young boy that will be starting there in the fall."
When Cassell participates in the 'Bike to the Beach' on Friday, he'll be raising more money for that scholarship fund. In fact, he and other friends and family members participating in the bike ride have already raised more than $25,000.
To support 'Team Cassell' in the 'Bike to the Beach' event, click here. Cassell will begin his bike ride at about 7:15 a.m. Friday, bound for Dewey Beach, Delaware.
"I have a number of friends that will be pedaling with me," he said. "There's a 100 mile option that starts at Union Market in DC. There's a 50-miler that starts in Denton, Maryland, that's the one I'm going to be doing. And then there's a 25-miler as well."
He knows that his son will be with him for every one of those miles.
"Oh yeah, he's pumping his fist, like Jake always did. He's saying go for it dad! You got this dad! There's no doubt he sees what's happening," said Cassell.
To learn more about the 'Bike to the Beach' event, click here.
Meanwhile, Seven On Your Side has learned safety improvements are nearly complete on Old Georgetown Road, where Jake lost his life. His bicycle accident last summer happened an area where there is no bike lane or room between the sidewalk and the busy road.
"He was on the sidewalk, and was riding on the sidewalk towards the YMCA, heading south. And each driveway had a little curb," recalled Steve Cassell. "So he came up a curb and there was a no parking sign right in the middle of the sidewalk. And it was trash day, so there was a row of five or six trash cans. So he came up the curb, and he had to go to the right to get around the street sign. Then he had swerve left because all the trash cans were in the way. And in between the curb and the street sign and the trash cans, he lost his speed. He just lost his balance and fell over. If he had fallen right or fallen forward, he would be alive today."
In the weeks and months that followed Jake's death, there was a push for change. And in February of 2020, the Maryland State Highway Administration announced it would add bike lanes and buffers on each side of the road.
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When ABC7 visited the site on Thursday, we found that work is nearly complete, with bike lanes and five-foot buffers already visible near the intersection of Old Georgetown Road and Beech Avenue. Travel lanes have also been reduced from six lanes to four in that area, with narrower lanes designed to slow down traffic. MDSHA said the project runs from Cedar Lane to I-495 on Old Georgetown Road.
"The safety features are all in place and some minor punch list items are being completed," MDSHA told ABC7.
The full project is expected to be finished by the fall.
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"We're so thankful that another family will not have to experience what we've gone through, because now you can pedal and walk down the street without a zero margin of error," said Cassell. "When Jake fell, his bicycle was still in the sidewalk. The fact that he fell sideways and fell into the road -- there was zero buffer. And he was immediately hit, literally one to two feet off the curb. I'm just glad bicyclists will no longer have to ride on that sidewalk."