Two rising second-year students are preparing to spend their last free summer on bicycles pedaling for charity, carrying on what will be a 16-year UConn Health tradition.
This year’s “Coast to Coast for a Cause” team is UConn dental student Alexandra Estanislau, from East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, and UConn medical student June Chu, from the New York City borough of Queens. They’re raising money for the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, in Ashford.
“I was actually supposed to work at Hole in the Wall last summer, and I was really excited about that, but then that got canceled because of COVID,” says Chu, who had a cousin and a friend diagnosed with cancer at young ages. “It’s especially meaningful to me, because similar organizations in New York I know made a really big impact on my family and my friend’s family. They did a lot for them.”
The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, founded by Hollywood legend and philanthropist Paul Newman, provides a camp experience to seriously ill children at no cost to their families. Proceeds from the Coast to Coast ride also went to the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in 2016 and 2019. In February, a fire destroyed four buildings on the campground, leading to an outpouring of community and corporate support to rebuild. The students say the fire also factored into their decision to support the camp.
“The organization itself is just incredible,” Estanislau says. “I went to camp growing up, so I know what it’s like, being able to have that freedom and just like be a kid. So I thought it was a really important organization.”
Every year since 2006, some combination of UConn medical and dental students formed a team, chose a cause, flew to the west coast, and started a 3,500-mile tour back home. They would pedal by day and at night they would sleep in tents at campgrounds or the property of agreeable strangers, or in beds at the occasional motel, the homes friends and family who happened to be along the route, or, in more recent years, spare bedrooms of people who offer their homes for touring cyclists through a network known as “Warm Showers.”
Like many things in 2020, last year’s trip required some variation, becoming “House to House for a Cause,” with a modified itinerary that kept the students mostly in New England, stopping in the yards of classmates, friends, and faculty for socially distant visits and support.
This year, Estanislau and Chu are taking it back to a cross-country ride. They’ll fly to Seattle June 8, make their way to Anacortes, Washington, to pick up their bikes, and start heading east on June 10.
“Someone told me there’s no amount of training you can fully do to completely prepare for this,” Chu says. “The first couple of weeks will just whip you into shape because it’s all mountains, then after that it’ll be smooth sailing. But it’s really beautiful, you just need to appreciate it, and be aware that you’re going to be uncomfortable.”
Neither student claims to have distance biking experience. Estanislau was on the swim team for all four of her years at Ithaca College. Chu, who graduated from UConn’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences last year with a dual undergraduate degree in Spanish and physiology and neurobiology, says she was more into music than sports. Both have been fitting in rides and cardiovascular workouts as their academic schedules have permitted.
“Ever since I got my bike and I’ve been on the road, the freedom of just biking on the road and seeing beauty around you and breathing in the air, it’s just such a great feeling,” Estanislau says. “And so I’m really looking forward to having that while also seeing places I’ve never seen before.”
Like many of their predecessors, the way home is known as the Northern Tier bike route, which will take them through the northern border states.
“I just really enjoy being outside and being on the bike, it’s a very, very liberating feeling,” Chu says. “I am excited to see the country. I haven’t been to most of the northern states. And I think just the physical challenge of it is something that I’m excited for.”
They’ll also keep with tradition and maintain a blog to document their adventures along the way, at coast2coast2021.wordpress.com, as well as post photos to Instagram, @uconncoast2coast2021.
For those wishing to support this year’s ride, the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp has an event donation page specific to the 2021 Coast to Coast for a Cause.