Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by David Kadlubowski
GCU News Bureau
Carol Gary didn’t even know about the Run to Fight Children’s Cancer until a few months after her son, Evan, passed away.
In the first year Carol ran the race on the Grand Canyon University campus, she ran on her own.
Then her lone note found harmonic accompaniment as the rest of her family joined her the following year. They’ve returned for four years.
“We thought the experience was really great and the mission was really great,” said Carol, a GCU alumna whose family was named one of the top fundraising teams at the Run to Fight Children’s Cancer Superhero Banquet on Thursday at the GCU Golf Course’s Lope House Restaurant.
It was at the end-of-year banquet where organizers announced how much would be donated to the beneficiaries — Children’s Cancer Network and Phoenix Children’s Hospital — and where they honored volunteers and top fundraising teams, recognized sponsors, handed out awards and cheered the race starters and their families.
“It’s a nice evening to wrap up the race year,” said GCU Community Outreach Manager Debbie Accomazzo.
For the Gary family, including Carol’s husband, Grant, and their sons Jonathan and Simon, Carol said that being embraced by the race each spring “is a way to honor our son’s memory and to support the efforts of people like Patti (Luttrell, Executive Director and Co-founder of Children’s Cancer Network, which took over the management of the race from GCU for the first time in 2018).”
Oftentimes, families have to leave the state to get treatment — the type of bone marrow transplant Evan needed to help him fight his cancer was still in its fledgling stages in Arizona at the time of his battle. So supporting efforts for safer, more effective treatments and support systems, such as Children’s Cancer Network and Phoenix Children’s Hospital, is important to the Gary family.
Accomazzo, the race director until the race management transition began in 2017, said Run to Fight has been blessed with so many inspirational stories. In the eight years since it made its debut, none of the eight race starters — children battling cancer who are chosen to sound the air horn to start the 5K and 10 K races — have lost their fight with cancer.
Sadly, pediatric cancer can’t always be defeated. The Run to Fight community on Thursday was mourning the passing of one of those children whose name became familiar to those in the run and whose courageous spirit captured hearts. And Evan Gary, who was diagnosed with an uncommon form of leukemia, died in 2012, just two years after he was first diagnosed at age 12.
Mom Carol said Evan joked about “being a rare bird” and never refused to participate in cancer studies. He wanted to contribute, somehow, to finding a cure.
According to CureSearch for Children’s Cancer, 12 percent of children diagnosed with cancer do not survive.
That’s a statistic Children’s Cancer Network and Phoenix Children’s Hospital hope to change. Funds raised from the race, run on the GCU campus on March 10 this year, are helping move the needle.
Amy Hoff, Special Events Coordinator at Phoenix Children’s Hospital Foundation, received a portion of the race revenue, $40,000, at the event. She said, “The money we get goes to fund the research in the cancer center. It really goes to the greatest need within the cancer center.”
An important feature of the hospital, she said, is the newly expanded Center for Cancer & Blood Disorders, the largest pediatric program of its kind in Arizona, providing care for children diagnosed with malignancies and hematologic diseases.
Children’s Cancer Network this year was able to fund a full-time family therapist, said Luttrell.
“The need for that position was HUGE. … In January, we were able to start that full time to the tune of $89,000,” she said.
The organization also continues to fund such items as gas and food cards for families who have to travel for treatments.
“Gas and food remain one of the highest needs,” she said.
Children’s Cancer Network also will be able to offer $20,000 in scholarships to help families whose budgets likely have been strained by medical bills.
This was the first year the organization managed Run to Fight, which had fallen under the auspices of GCU since the first run in 2011.
“Nine years ago, a team from Grand Canyon University approached me with an idea for a run. We didn’t have an office nine years ago. The initial meeting with GCU took place at our dining table,” said Patti’s husband, Steve Luttrell, CCN’s President and Co-founder.
The race has grown to include 2,325 registered runners this year along with 107 fundraising teams, 140 survivors and family members registered for the Survivors Walk, and 511 volunteers.
“GCU, you’re the best, you really are,” Steve said and added that when it came to taking over the race, he thought to himself, “All we have to do is work with the blueprint they created.”
Race participation, according to Accomazzo, was up by 14 percent this year.
“It was a good year,” Patti Luttrell said at the end of the ceremony. “The funds raised will benefit many Arizona families as they battle childhood cancer.”
Lily Gray’s title of 2018 race starter came to an end at the banquet. When she was chosen, at 3 years old, she was the youngest race starter to take on the role.
“It was a great experience,” said Lily’s mom, Lindsey Gray, of being the race starter family as Lily’s sister, Lincoln, happily darted around the banquet room with big sis Lily. “It was an emotional experience in a really good way. It forces you to relive diagnosis day and how far you’ve come. To have other race families support you – that’s been awesome.”
Her family plans on continuing to be involved, just like other race starter families before them: “It’s one of those great things – once you’re in, you’re in for life,” she said.
Top fundraising teams
Team Lily Panda
Jack Crushed Cancer
Team One Day at a Time
GCU: Host sponsor
Pono Construction: Grand presenting sponsorship
Bank of America
GCU’s Canyon Christian Schools Consortium
GCU’s athletes, along with Student-Athlete Advisory Committee
You can reach GCU Today senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at 602-639-7901 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.