Although the spring semester began just weeks ago, Vince Schiano and Chris Zukas are already making ambitious summer plans. The Niagara University students, as many of their peers often do, intend to hit the road for the West Coast on Memorial Day.
Only they plan to do it on bicycles for a good cause.
Schiano and Zukas are hoping to be among the approximately 90 participants of this year's 4K for Cancer, a philanthropic activity launched in 2001 by a group of students from Johns Hopkins University. Now affiliated with the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, the event raises funds and provides direct support for cancer patients.
The nonprofit program raised $476,000 last summer.
Aside from collecting donations, participants also support host communities by visiting cancer patients, taking part in community dinners and giving cancer awareness presentations during the cross-country trek.
Entrants can choose to join one of three rides: Baltimore to Seattle, Baltimore to Portland, or Baltimore to San Francisco. Each cyclist is required to raise $4,500 to take the trip, 90 percent of which goes directly to help cancer-affected families pay for hospital bills and afford recovery camps. Funds from the 70-day, 4,000-mile ride are also dedicated to sponsoring scholarships for young adult cancer survivors.
Should they make the cut, Schiano will head to San Francisco while Zukas will travel to Portland.
"Cancer is no stranger to my life," said Schiano, a junior communication studies major from Gates. "After losing two of my grandparents to lung cancer, I had already associated cancer with tragedy since a very young age. To lose what my parents say were the 'biggest-hearted individuals one could ever meet' leaves me no choice but to charge full speed ahead against cancer."
Zukas, a senior who serves as president of Niagara University's Student Government Association, has also had his life touched by the deadly disease.
"When I was a sophomore in high school, my father was diagnosed with cancer," the Elmira native explained. "I watched the stress and pain it caused him, my family and me. About a year later, on Dec. 23, 2006, my father passed away from the disease. That loss has forever impacted my life. Part of the grieving process for me was to do more in college for those affected by cancer."
Both students have participated in events such as Relay For Life, which raises funds for cancer research, and Zukas, through his role with NUSGA, has become involved with organizations such as the American Cancer Society and the Make-A-Wish and Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundations.
Last spring, NUSGA and the Niagara University community raised more than $6,000 to send Logan, a 4-year-old boy stricken with leukemia, and his family to Disney World. About an hour before the send-off party, Zukas had the opportunity to show Logan around NU's campus and chat with him about his upcoming trip. It was during this discussion that Logan told Zukas that he was especially looking forward to bringing back toys from Disney World for his friends at the hospital, a comment that Zukas says "stopped me in my tracks."
"I was astonished that a 4-year-old in his position was most excited to bring back toys for the other kids affected by cancer," the marketing major said afterward. "I wrote that comment down and stuck it on my bedroom wall. I look at Logan's comment every day and try to act more selfless. That is what motivates me to travel across the country working in local communities and raising money to beat cancer."
Each day, riders bike anywhere from 50-120 miles, a significant challenge that is meant to emulate the struggle of one fighting cancer.
That message will not be lost on Schiano.
"I physically have never been in touch with cancer," he said. "I don't know the physical pains of it, nor do I know the true essence of pushing myself beyond my limits. I want to be a part of that new hope, a part of the community that doesn't back down when the going gets rough. Ultimately, I want to stand for my family, my friends and my community as a warrior against cancer."
Schiano and Zukas expect to cross paths in Boulder, Colo., before concluding their respective rides the first week in August.