Three simple words that are deeply connected through more than just the H2O that is pivotal for their existence. For cancer patients, "survive" is the most important of these three. But for the team at Athletes 4 Cancer, it may be the other two that make the third one possible.
Athletes 4 Cancer uses the power of outdoor sports like surfing, stand-up paddling, outrigger canoeing, skiing and snowboarding "as channels of healing, achievement and life-renewal that treat the mind, body, and soul to help young adults renew, rebuild, and restart their lives after cancer." And maybe those last three words are just as important: Life. After. Cancer.
Q: Can you share what influenced you to start Athletes 4 Cancer?
In 2006 and 2007 I watched my brother, Scott, battle, survive, and eventually pass away from Leukemia at 19 years old. During this time I become keenly aware of all things cancer-related, but most of all opened my eyes to a real lack of survivorship resources, and specifically for young, progressive, and active adults. It appeared to me that the medical community dropped their patients off “at the curb”, providing prescriptions but not resources for the rest of life. Many other young survivors seemed to struggle deeply to truly live after their cancer without feelings of guilt, recurrence, and fear. That hit home, influencing me to find a channel of healing that focuses on the person as a whole, and help them live again, and sometimes better, after cancer.
Q: What can cancer survivors expect to receive from Athletes 4 Cancer? How does your organization positively affect their lives going forward?
That’s a great question! I’m hesitant to state what survivors should expect, because a lot of the transformation and ah-ha moments from our program come about because they are unexpected. Our goal is to help survivors find confidence, strength and courage to reclaim life and truly thrive after cancer. This happens through facing fears through outdoor adventure and sports, then applying what they learned into their daily lives. That said, our survivor ambassadors find that the destination is not as important as the journey itself -- whether it’s the journey of learning something new and physical, to gathering the courage to apply for a job with a disability, to starting a Athletes 4 Cancer active meetup group to bike on a regular basis. I just want our survivors to inspire positive change in their lives and the lives of others.
Q: With all that is going on in a cancer survivor’s life, what made sports such as surfing, canoeing and skiing the outlet that you felt these people needed in their lives?
Each of these sports relies on, and is greatly affected by the elements we conduct them in. That additional variable adds unpredictability, requiring one to adapt, to let go of what you can’t control, and make committed decisions to move forward whether on a wave, big swell, or down a mountain. Survivors can transfer the decision-making and thought process they learn when watching waves over to everything in their daily lives. That wave is a decision in one’s life: You can choose to pass it by, or commit 100% to it, ride it, and own it!
Q: You recently announced Athletes 4 Cancer has been awarded an Explore Fund Grant from The North Face. How will this affect the people you are looking to help and will it allow you to run additional camps?
The Explore Fund Grant helped us put on one camp program in March. It means a lot to be recognized by The North Face and the Explore Fund -- they give to some great organizations and I feel honored to have Athletes 4 Cancer selected as one of their beneficiaries!
Q: Can you talk about the influence of the John Wayne Cancer Foundation and its impact on Athletes for Cancer?
Back in 2009 the John Wayne Cancer Foundation was sponsoring our event, Kiteboarding 4 Cancer. Back then we just donated the funds raised to other cancer programs and nonprofits. When the idea came up to do our own survivorship camp program, I presented a loose plan to JWCF to get their feedback. They said, “let’s do it,” and the John Wayne Cancer Foundation funded our very first pilot program. The confidence they had in me and the program was huge. They are one of our closest partners -- we share a mutual vision in harnessing physical activity, sport, and the outdoors to find healing and strength after cancer. They have since helped fund every single camp, now at 7 camps!
Q: The Camp Koru Survivorship Program is the main program you use to empower cancer fighters and survivors to find healing, achievement and life renewal. Can you briefly describe what this program entails and how it can affect the participants?
Camp Koru is a 6-day adventure retreat that introduces survivors to a new and often challenging sport or activity in the elements. In the process of learning how to surf in a supportive environment, with peer support, survivors learn to overcome fears and face life’s challenges. They often leave camp inspired to make physical activity and healthy living a way of life and inspire others to do the same. What came as a total surprise to us was how many of our participants started volunteering and taking on philanthropic leadership roles in their communities after camp. That is positive change!
Q: You have three core fundraising events- Kiteboarding 4 Cancer, Paddle 4 Cancer, and Boards of Hope. Can you briefly describe how you came up with the idea for these events and how they impact fundraising for the organization?
Kiteboarding 4 Cancer came about because I run a kiteboarding school, I was a pro kiteboarder, and it was the first thing that came to mind while my brother was in treatment... “Let’s do a kiteboarding fundraiser!” It’s a 6-hour endurance race that essentially embodies what someone battling cancer faces every day, and over 6 years we have raised over $400,000. Paddle 4 Cancer is based on the same premise but with standup paddling.
Boards of Hope came about in 2011 to highlight and feature the healing power of art. That also started from my brother, because the journey of art creation for him was an incredibly therapeutic process. In BOH, artists submit works on the theme “Healing & Hope”, and all work is based on some type of “board” - skateboard, snowboard, surfboard, etc. We usually raise around $7000-$10,000 from Boards of Hope, which helps us put on another camp!
Q: Your ambassador program allows people to “pay it forward for someone with cancer.” Can you explain the ambassador program and how people can get involved with it?
Our Ambassador Program is led by our survivor ambassadors who have attended Camp Koru. They go out into the cancer community (support groups, treatment centers, survivorship groups), share their Camp Koru experience, with the goal of guiding and inspiring other survivors to reclaim their lives through outdoor recreation and nature. The fundraising side of the program is that anyone can be an ambassador and raise $1500 to send a survivor through Camp Koru, with the hopes that that individual will reach out and improve lives in her community as well. It’s a ripple of change that can be passed on from person to person.
Q: The North Face Explore Fund Grant is obviously a big deal for Athletes 4 Cancer; how do you see working with other corporate donors or sponsors in the future?
I would like to have more corporate donors and sponsors involved, but it can be very challenging when many foundation directors and donors in general have been trained to look at numbers instead of outcomes. Numbers can be deceiving. We measure our impact by the individual and connection outcomes. The impact of our survivorship program is narrow and deep vs. wide and shallow. That is why The North Face Explore Fund Grant is such a big deal to us -- it reflects that The North Face gets this and supports deeply impacting lives. We hope more foundations will recognize impact in this light.
Q: Cancer is such a devastating disease that affects so many lives. If someone is moved to get involved with Athletes 4 Cancer, what options do they have to participate?
We need board support, so anyone with strong skills in such areas as finance, marketing, legal, business, strategic planning, etc. is encouraged to apply! Success of an organization is relative to the strength of the board and we need solid board members! Aside from that, because we don’t get corporate grants, every single donation truly helps. Without the individual donations, we wouldn’t exist to put on these programs. Supporters can also create their own recreational or sport event, and fundraise for Athletes 4 Cancer.
Q: Since you are a relatively new organization - founded in 2007 - what is your vision going forward?
My vision is to continue with Camp Koru and the Ambassador Program, but also implement a new program that helps survivors who may not be able to leave their homes or treatment centers. This extension of Camp Koru aims to provide post-camp life guidance and inspire living authentically for the long haul.
Q: What is the overall image/message you want to present about Athletes 4 Cancer?
That we empower all those affected by cancer to live, thrive, and inspire others to do the same through outdoor recreation, connection and a healthy, balanced lifestyle.