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Cyclist raising money for camp for children with cancer

On Monday and Tuesday, Pagosa Springs will host “a man who has committed his life to helping a great cause with the power of two wheels” — Gene Conner.

Hoping to raise $50,000 for Sunrise Day Camp, the only dedicated day camp for children with cancer, Conner began a trek on his bicycle from San Diego, California on June 24, with the intention of cycling his way all to the way to New York somewhere around Aug. 2, to the grounds of Sunrise Day Camp.

At the end of his journey, Conner will have logged around 3,600 miles this summer.

“Connor’s Army XC” is what the cyclist has named his foundation for collecting pledges, with that money helping to support year-round activities at Sunrise Day Camp. Ultimately, those funds benefit children attending the summer camp (which takes care of all those kids free of charge) and bravely battling cancer at a young age.

A dance and drama teacher at a New York high school and at the camp during the summers, Connor took his first stab at helping in the battle against cancer in 2007 as one after the other of three of his sisters and his mother were diagnosed with different cancers in a two-year period.

Having been touched so deeply by the deadly disease, Connor rode over 2,000 miles that year, raising nearly $12,000 to benefit the American Cancer Society. Later, he organized a Victory Ride with other cyclists that raised an additional $2,400 in its first year. In addition, his daughter Sarah (eight years old at the time) started Connor’s Army Junior and added $1,000 to that total by riding her new two-wheeler 50 miles.

On Sunday night, Connor told SUN staff in a phone interview that, after raising money for the American Cancer Society, he started looking for a way to make his efforts against cancer a more personal battle.

“The money I raised wasn’t much in the overall scheme of things,” Connor said. “I was looking within the cancer community where $13,000 could make a difference.”

It was after the high school where he worked held a walk-a-thon fund-raiser to benefit Sunrise that Connor realized, “I saw who I wanted to help, that the money I raised would make the most impact.

“When you see the look on those kids faces when they’re at the camp, they just beam, and you know it’s all worthwhile,” Connor said on Sunday.

“What they do at Sunrise is important not just to the children experiencing this terrible disease, but to their whole family,” Connor said in a recent press release. “Watching your child suffer is hard enough; but because of the financial burden of medical care, these parents often can’t give their other children the normal experiences of childhood. Sunrise gives them this opportunity at a camp equipped to handle both the physical and emotional needs of all their children.

“My biggest dream,” he continued, “is that I’ll inspire someone in one of the communities I pass through to start a program like Sunrise in their area.”

Fast forward five years and the journey remains a family affair with Connor’s wife, Amy, driving the van that is used as a base for the two-month ride and Sarah, who celebrated her 13th birthday during the trek, hoping to put in at least 400 miles during the summer.

As for nine-year-old twins William and James, “They’ll just be happy to be riding with their dad. The children know what he’s doing and why, and they want to help in any way they can. We’re all very proud of him,” Amy said.

So, why Pagosa Springs?

At about the quarter-way point in his cross country trek, Connor said he had consulted a number of routes suggested by the Adventure Cycling Association looking for the easiest route across the continental United States.

“I didn’t know if, physically, I could handle the Rocky Mountains and briefly considered a more southerly route,” he said.

However, after talking to other cyclists and doing a little research, Connor was struck by the beauty and grandeur offered by Pagosa Country, eventually deciding that the steep climb up the Continental Divide was well worth the effort.

Additionally, it was the opportunity to get a lift from Rocky Mountain Balloon Adventures during a day-long stayover in Pagosa Springs that cinched the decision for all involved.

“I wanted her (Amy) to have that experience,” Connor said, adding that while in labor, Amy took a detour during their trip to the delivery room in order to watch a hot air balloon lift off.

However, it’s likely that Pagosans will be more than happy to add to the welcome when the Conners stay here next week.

Arriving in Pagosa Springs, “somewhere between three and four” on Monday, July 9, Connor will have made a grueling 110-mile uphill ride from Cortez — the longest leg of his trip up to that point.

Connor said there was a trade-off between the high elevation (but cooler weather) and the deserts of Arizona and eastern California that he endured in his climb to tackle the mountains of Colorado.

With temperatures often exceeding 110 degrees during his climb from sea level to over 7,000 feet, all done on an old, steel-frame Diamondback 10-speed, Connor said he looks forward to a more temperate ride as well as the challenge overtaking Wolf Creek Pass.

Preparing for the Herculean ride up the pass (Connor will finish in Del Norte), it should be expected that Pagosa denizens will be all too happy to roll out the red carpet.

However, while hospitality and schwag is great, Connor’s mission is to raise $50,000 for the kids and any way that Pagosans can dig deep to help will most likely make that ride all the more worthwhile.

A brief visit to www.connorsarmy.org will instruct donors how to make a pledge for the journey. Checks made out to Sunrise Day Camp can also be mailed to Connor’s Army, PO Box 196, Northport NY 11768.

Likewise, donations can also be made on the Sunrise Day Camp website (www.sunrisedaycamp.org) by clicking on the “Fundraising Events” link.

Aside from monetary donations, other options include donating credit card or hotel points or miles to Connor’s Army XC to pay for hotels during the bike ride across the country, and donating bicycles to be refurbished and sold for Sunrise and its children. There is even the ambitious choice of joining Connor’s Army XC and cycling part of the cross country ride.

Furthermore, corporate and company sponsorships are encouraged. Sponsors for Connor’s Army XC include the Smiles for Scott Foundation, Coinland.com, Now What Coaching, Adams Cyclery, Spectacular Smiles, Art Studio Eighty-Five, Bicycle Times Magazine, Loudon’s Minuteman Press, RJM Computer Services, Sooner Screen Printers, A.C.T. and Merelis Productions. Sponsorships, both financial and in-kind, are still available for this high profile nationwide event. Information about sponsorship levels is available on the Connor’s Army website.

At the end, Connor will not only enjoy the satisfaction of having pedaled his way across America but, mostly, in having made a difference in the lives of children struck far too early by such a terrible disease.

“Because of all the special services required, running a camp like Sunrise is very expensive,” Connor explained in the press release. “Five-thousand dollars will send six children to camp for a full summer.”

The ride across the country will be momentous for Connor, his family and the brave children fighting cancer who will be able to attend the Sunrise Day Camp.

If the ride can be made all the more memorable due to the characteristic hospitality and generosity of Pagosans, so much the better.

jim@pagosasun.com

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