Pedaling Past a Pandemic With Four UConn Health Students

Web conference screen grab with the students wearing bike helmets
Clockwise from top left: Sarah Gans, Kelly Jones, Mary Kate Koskiusco and Talia Staiger, in bike helmets, hold a video conference to plan their 2020 "House to House for a Cause" bicycle tour. (Photo provided by Kelly Jones)

The summertime “Coast to Coast” bicycle fundraiser, a UConn Health second-year student tradition since 2006, is taking a different form this year.

A team of four students from the UConn Schools of Medicine and Dental Medicine Classes of 2023 will be the 15th group to continue the annual tradition of spending their last free summer cycling to raise money for a cause. But dental students Talia Staiger and Kelly Jones and medical students Mary Kate Kosciusko and Sarah Gans will be the first to do it during a pandemic.

Therefore, a tour that originated as “Coast to Coast for a Cure” is, for this year at least, “House to House for a Cause.”

“We are creating a route that will bring us through Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut that also incorporates various friends and faculty members,” Kosciusko says. “While we are devastated that we won’t be going cross-country, we love that we’ll get to involve the UConn community during the trip itself. We no longer have epic vistas to motivate our daily ride, but instead, friendly familiar faces.”

The cause this year is the Adaptive Sports Program at the Hospital for Special Care. The students have been formulating their itinerary based on responses to an online form for classmates, faculty, friends, family, and community members to sign up for a home visit from them this summer.

“Their responses have been coming in with generous offers to camp on their lawns, feed us, cheer us on, and even join us for parts of the ride,” Gans says. “Very different from the original plan to fly to Seattle and make our way home to Connecticut, but we wanted to find a way to adapt that felt safe and responsible.”

Map of northeast with specific locations highlighted
The 2020 version of UConn Health’s traditional “Coast to Coast for a Cause” is staying in the Northeast this summer. (coast2coast2020.travel.blog)

They’ll start June 30 with day trips in central Connecticut. Then on July 10 they’ll head out for about two weeks throughout New England, covering about 700 miles.

All four students say they exercise regularly, but none describes herself as an experienced distance cyclist. Here’s what else they have to say about their trip:

What motivated you to join what was going to be a cross-country cycling tour?

Jones: I’ve never done anything like this before and I am really excited to push myself athletically while I am able to do so. Additionally I am excited for the memories and experiences I will have during this trip. And finally, I think the fundraising for the trip is a really wonderful way to take my passions of health and wellness in order to give back to a community of people who would be unable to share in these activities because of disability.

Staiger: I love being outside and doing cardio, and I really want to see more of the country! This seemed like a great way to do all of those things at once. I also did track in college and high school, and this feels very similar – working hard toward a common goal as a team. I also love the charity we are raising money for; sports have absolutely changed my life and I want to help the Adaptive Sports Program increase athletic opportunities for those with disabilities.

Gans: What better way to spend my “last summer”? This trip is an opportunity to challenge myself, grow close to colleagues, support a good cause, and proudly represent UConn Health.

Kosciusko: I love being outside! I love swimming, hiking, paddle boarding, really anything outdoors. My dream has always been to do a thru hike such as the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail. So when I heard that there was something similar I could do during my summer while also raising money for a cause, I knew I had to do it.

What are you most looking forward to, and what has you most concerned?

Staiger: I’m most looking forward to getting to see new places, and be outside on my bike with my friends! I’m also really looking forward to visiting some of our classmates outside their homes, too. I think I’m most concerned about finding enough places in Connecticut for us to safely spend a whole day biking, all summer. But I think we will be able to put our heads together and find lots of fun areas to bike!

Kosciusko: I am most excited to do something new! I have never done a bike trip before and love the idea of learning a new skill and sport. I also love that we are group of women going out around New England to raise money for a great cause. I hope to be an example for other young girls to be adventurous and to show them their voice can be used help others. Safety is definitely my biggest concern. My biggest hindrance to picking up cycling earlier has been the fear of getting into an accident. I definitely plan on using my time until the trip to learn about the various ways we can stay safe.

Jones: I think before COVID changed our plans I was extremely excited to see the variability of our country’s geography/wilderness. But now I am so looking for seeing my friends in “far away” parts of New England. Being cooped up during quarantine has been difficult. I’m most concerned about keeping pace. The other three bikers are extremely fit/have done athletically strenuous things like this before; hopefully I can keep up!

Gans: What I’m looking forward to is being outdoors and away from the screen and safely seeing people I miss. I’m most concerned about the hills! Connecticut has lots of them. But while we are disappointed to not be going Cross Country, this trip will get us to know our home state of Connecticut in a new way. We are all Connecticut natives, and chose to attend our state school. It feels fitting that we’ll end this summer with an even deeper appreciation and love for the state that raised us.

Why is the Adaptive Sports Program important to you?

Gans: I volunteered at the Adaptive Sports Program at the Hospital for Special Care for a day of community service during orientation. As we cleaned and organized wheelchair basketball equipment, I understood how their success depends on specialized equipment, knowledgeable coaches, and an accessible facility. What I take for granted when I go the gym, can be harder to access for individuals with different physical needs.  As a medical student, I’ve been taught how being active and social are key elements to being healthy. The Adaptive Sports Program makes this possible by meeting each individual’s needs and creating opportunities for recreation and fun.

Group portrait outside Hospital for Special Care Building
From left: UConn medical and dental students Sarah Gans, Kelly Jones, Mary Kate Koskiusco, and Talia Staiger are bicycling across New England this summer to raise awareness of and funds for the Hospital for Special Care’s Adaptive Sports Program. (coast2coast2020.travel.blog/)

Jones: Before Sarah had suggested it to us, I had not heard of the program. But after learning all about it and meeting with the Hospital for Special Care, I am so proud to be supporting such worthy group of people. I think our trip lends to raising money for a cause that supports health and wellness, so I am really happy we chose them.

Kosciusko: I have always identified as an athlete. Sports and fitness are my safe place and comfort. So, the Adaptive Sport Program really resonates with me as its goal is to make athletics accessible no matter what.

Staiger: I started doing track in eighth grade, and the friendships, challenges, and growth that progressing in my sport has allowed me has changed my life. I realize kids with disabilities may not have the same access to high school sports that I did, and I love that the program gives kids the opportunities to grow and excel in sports. Additionally, one of my best friend’s brothers has a physical disability, and I’ve been able to see how much happiness he gets from wheelchair basketball.

How can the rest of us support you?

Staiger: I think the best way to support us would be to donate to our cause, through our website: coast2coast2020.travel.blog/.

Gans: You can sign up if you would like us to visit you, and you can also donate there! Also, follow us on Instagram, @uconnhouse2house2020

Jones: Donate, spread the word, and offer us yards to camp in during our longer trips.

Kosciusko: Most importantly, donate! The Adaptive Sports Program offers so much to their athletes and your support allows kids and adults to participate in activities that many of us take for granted. Also, we will be posting our tentative route on our website, so if you find yourself along that route and have a yard for us to camp in, we would gladly take you up on that.