WYOMISSING, Pa. — A team of faculty and staff at Penn State Berks have come together to form a cycling team with the ultimate goal of raising funds for pediatric cancer. The team is participating in the Great Cycling Challenge with the goal of raising at least $3,000 and riding at least 500 miles during the month of September, which is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in the United States.
Michele Ramsey, associate professor of communication arts and sciences and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Penn State Berks, said she became acutely aware of the ongoing struggles to defeat pediatric cancer when a relative, Mela, was diagnosed with high-risk neuroblastoma as a toddler in 2020. Since her diagnosis, Mela has survived countless surgeries, procedures and tests. While she has beaten the odds and is now a happy seven-year old, she has scans every 10 weeks, regular treatments in New York City and fights battles linked to the impact of treatments on her developing body. She has also endured losing many friends she’s made in treatment to cancer, something many don’t think about as part of a child’s fight against the disease, Ramsey said.
After hearing Mela’s story, Ramsey and her father decided to start riding their bikes in the annual Great Cycling Challenge in honor of Mela. This year marks her fourth year in the challenge, which asks that riders pledge to ride a certain number of miles in September in hopes of gathering financial sponsors for the rides. The collected funds go to the Children’s Cancer Research Fund, which, to date, has raised over $200 million dollars to fund pediatric cancer research and helps families deal with treatments financially and emotionally through a variety of programs.
“It is heartbreaking to see so many sweet children undergoing many difficult surgeries and procedures at a time in their lives when they should have few cares in the world past learning, playing and enjoying life," Ramsey said. "Helping raise money and awareness while doing something I enjoy is a very easy choice for me to make. And given that Penn State is a land-grant university, I believe this team project is meeting the goals of that mission by helping our communities and its residents who are dealing with the implications of a pediatric cancer diagnosis.”
Last year, three members of the Penn State Berks campus community joined Ramsey for the Great Cycle Challenge, and this year, the "Penn State Berks Rides for the Kids" team has 10 members. The team includes: Ramsey and her father, Jack Ramsey; Todd Migliaccio, vice chancellor and chief academic officer; Kathy Cavanaugh, education program specialist and adjunct professor of communication arts and sciences and kinesiology; Jennifer Murphy, associate professor of criminal justice; Laura Harak, administrative assistant in the Office of Development; Dale Osenbach, eastern district commander for police services; Nathan Greenauer, associate professor of psychology; Heather Wise, assistant director of alumni relations; and Diane Sanders, international student coordinator.
According to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, about 400,000 children develop cancer each year, though only about 50% of children are officially diagnosed. Cancer is also the leading cause of death in the United States for children past infancy. But science is doing its best to better the odds for children diagnosed with a pediatric cancer and that work means that about 80% of children who are diagnosed now become long-time survivors. Still, according to the Children’s Cancer Research Fund, by the age of 50, “more than 99% of survivors had a chronic health problem, and 96% have experienced a severe or life-threatening condition caused by the toxicity of the treatment that initially saved their life, including brain damage, loss of hearing and sight, heart disease, secondary cancers, learning disabilities and more.”
While Ramsey is riding for her relative, Mela, other team members have their own reasons for participating. Migliaccio is riding for Magali "Maggie" Grace Varano, the daughter of a friend and former colleague from Sacramento State, who was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive brain cancer.
“It happened my first semester of working here at Penn State Berks," Migliaccio said. "She passed away just before the information was shared with me about the ride last year, and I felt this was one way I could give back to my friend and his family during such a horrible time.”
Cavanaugh also shared why she's riding.
“Many years ago, a family member of mine was diagnosed with pediatric cancer," Cavanaugh said. "I’m happy to say he’s living a healthy life as a father of three and is cancer-free. I decided to join the team and ride for the cause to support not only the kids, but the families who are affected by the life-changing diagnosis.”
Murphy emphasized the need for more cancer research.
“I am riding because I have several family members and friends who have had children diagnosed with cancer," Murphy said. "While we have made significant progress in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, we still need more research and funding, especially for childhood cancers.”
Osenbach joined because he saw this “as an opportunity to interact with a few people at the Berks campus, support a good cause, and dust off the old bike.”
Harak is riding for her young cousin, Stella.
“She is only six-year-old and in her short life has endured lumbar punctures, chemotherapy and heart surgery," Harak said. "This little warrior was also born with Down syndrome and faces almost every day with a smile.”
For more information, to track the Penn State Berks Rides for the Kids team progress or to join the team, visit their Great Cycling Challenge team page.