Friendship and Loss
When asked how he first heard about Ride for a Child, rider Paul Brandes is quick to respond. Dick Hartung – founder of RFAC – has been his best friend since they attended grade school together. Even as they grew up and had families of their own, they remained lifelong friends. For twenty some years, each summer the families headed to the beach, kids in tow, for a fun multi-family vacation. During that time, Dickâ€™s daughter Jill became sick. She was diagnosed with Osteogenic Sarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer, at 5 years old.
Dick and Denise were introduced to Candlelighters For Children With Cancer, as a way to get support and connect with other parents going through a similar experience. Paul remembers, â€œAs soon as they got involved, they were all in.â€ Jill passed away in 1997 at the age of 9 after a 3 Â½ -year battle with Osteogenic Sarcoma. After the loss of Jill, Dick and Denise remained involved in the organization that had brought them hope and comfort, and by 2002 Dick had recovered enough to resume leadership within Candlelighters. Serving on the board of Candlelighters as the VP of Development, Dick was tasked with raising funds for an organization that was rich in compassion, purpose and mission, but like most small nonprofits, poor in funding.
After hearing about Cycle Oregon, in June of 2002, Dick pumped up the air on the tires of his 10 year-old mountain bike and started to train to ride in honor of Jill. During his ride, he started a fundraising appeal that went out to his family, friends and business associates. The ride was a huge success. Not only did he challenge himself and conquer the week of riding, he honored Jillâ€™s life by enriching the lives of other families impacted by childhood cancer.
A Ride for a Child Recruit
Following the success of his first ride, Dick started recruiting his friends to join him, and the Ride for a Child team grew. Each year, Paul found himself being asked to ride by his friends, who by now made up a core group of RFAC riders. Paul says â€œI was never a big cyclist. I liked to ride, but I didnâ€™t have time. But when I retired, I ran out of reasons to say no to the pressure.â€ Joking aside, Paul cites his main reasons for riding as his love for his friends – Dick and Denise Hartung – and to honor the memory of their daughter Jill. He is continually inspired by his friend, saying â€œDick is strong. Heâ€™s a leader, and heâ€™s charitable.â€
To date, Paul has participated in 4-5 Ride for a Child events. During COVID, with the group event off the table, he decided to do an independent ride to fundraise. As he suspected, his supporters werenâ€™t concerned about the number of miles ridden or the route and remained faithful to funding his ride. But when the week-long group ride returned post-COVID, Paul found himself being pulled back in: â€œWhen you ride, you develop deep relationships and bonds with others during a relatively short period of time because the ride (around 450 miles) is hard.â€
Why Keep Riding?
Asked if he has considered doing shorter rides – or none at all – Paul quickly answers yes, a yes immediately followed by â€œBut itâ€™s always the people who pull you back in. You get so much out of it.â€ Through the years, Paulâ€™s wife Jane has enjoyed becoming part of the RFAC support team. The couple, who often vacation in their RV, now bring it to the ride, where it has served as a welcome respite from the standard sleeping bag in a tent for the occasional injured rider.
As much as friendships, the beauty of the PNW and group camping are integral to the RFAC experience, so is fundraising. Paul has proved a leading fundraiser in the group. When asked for his secrets, he says, â€œI just tell my supporters my story. Itâ€™s all about my commitment to Dick, Denise and Jill.â€ In the past, his first touch point was a written letter to each prospective supporter.
This year, heâ€™s trying something different. He emailed supporters earlier than usual, and will follow up with a written letter. He finds that email gets a quick response, whereas letters are a bit slower, as they often tend to be left â€œfor laterâ€ and lay around the house for a while. Still, he will follow up his initial emails with a letter, and likely repeat the process. As of writing, he is the top fundraiser in the group.
Ride for a Child is both a week-long event, and a months-long process. Registration and planning starts up in February, and the Cycle Oregon ride is in September. The months between are filled with training, team-building meetups with the Honored Children, and fundraising.
How does Paul stay motivated throughout? One important piece is connecting with the Honored Children.
Each year, around 6 kids who have been diagnosed with cancer are chosen to be an Honored Child. Each Honored Child has a team of cyclists riding, fundraising, and creating awareness around childhood cancer. Ride for a Child provides several opportunities for Honored Children and their families to meet each other, and to meet the riders. Paul says that meeting the Honored Children and their parents brings the mission of the ride into focus.
â€œThe kids are amazing. But what really gets you is the look on the parents’ faces. Understanding and knowing what they are going through cements that you are part of something much bigger than just a bike ride. Last year, when I met my Honored Child and his family, I found out that they live just 10 blocks away from us.â€ Meeting kids and their families who are facing cancer really brings the cause front and center..
The Past and Future of Ride for a Child
Asked about his favorite RFAC memories, Paul recalls a reunion that took place a few years ago, in Central Oregon between Dick and Mathew. 13 years prior, Dick Hartung rode for Honored Child Mathew, a cancer survivor with Downs Syndrome. When Mathewâ€™s mom, Pat, found out that her town, La Pine, was on the cyclistâ€™s route, she reached out to share the impact that being an Honored Child had on Mathew many years ago, and asked how she could help. What followed was a joy to witness – Mathew – now cancer free and a very inspirational figure – and RFAC founder, Dick Hartung catching up after many years. Paul also recalls a memorable route that coincided with the Pendleton Roundup, giving cyclists a great reason to change from their gear into cowboy duds and let loose.
The future of Ride for a Child is something Paul takes seriously. The team, he says, is a close knit group who are extremely committed to the ride, fundraising, and their friendships. As many of them head into their 60s and 70s, the group looks to the next generation to carry on. â€œThe real key to the future of RFAC is to have a group that is motivated. That takes strong relationships within the group, and/or a personal connection to childhood cancer.â€ Paul admits that right now, much of the energy is within the core group of bonded riders whose lives have become intertwined over the many years of friendship. That works well for them, but, he says, they also need to look to the future.
â€œOn the outside, we look like a bunch of older white guys, with a few young women and men. I can see how that would not appeal to women – or younger people in general. We need to figure that out.â€ Paul goes on to speak of several first time female riders who joined last year. One of them was Candlelightersâ€™ Executive Director, Sarah Breece, who rode for the first time in 2022. As the organizationâ€™s leader and a childhood cancer survivor herself, Sarah was a strong voice for the RFAC cause. And after some initial doubts and rocky training rides, she returned from her first RFAC event as a full convert to the team. Paul takes this as a very good sign for the future of RFAC.
Interested in riding or supporting the team? Learn more about Ride for a Child, our riders, and Honored Children on our Ride for a Child 2023 page.
If you are interested in sponsoring Ride for a Child, email Camille@Candlelightersoregon.org