The Rhodes Ahead

Originally published in print by The Eagle on October 16, 2015.

Alec Rhodes has always been a little bit adventurous. In July, he started writing a bucket list, and Oct. 9, he crossed off number six — skydiving. Wearing a tuxedo and accompanied by his good friend Matteo Garofalo, Rhodes plunged out of an airplane from over 10,000 feet above Warrenton, Virginia.

“The total jump was about 45 seconds, but after the first 10 seconds it felt like I was floating and it felt like a dream. It was amazing,” Rhodes said. “Even the parachute part was fun.”

Rhodes, a sophomore in the School of Communication, named his bucket list “The Rhodes Less Traveled.” It includes 100 items, all of which have other people — strangers, family members, friends — at the core. Rhodes completed the jump on Oct. 9 with Garofalo, a senior in the Kogod School of Business, who had dreamed of doing the jump long before.

The number one item on the list has its own name, too: “Rhodes 2 A Cure,” a 10,000-mile cross-country bike ride during the summer of 2017. The ride is meant to garner nationwide support and funding for pediatric cancer research.

“Last fall semester, out of nowhere, I wanted to bike across the country,” Rhodes said. “That winter, I wanted to do it for something. I didn’t want to do it just for me.”

What started as an idle daydream is now a soon-to-be nonprofit organization with a $1 million fundraising goal, potential celebrity involvement and, of course, a four-month bike ride with his former cross country coach, Greg Peters — all in the name of cancer awareness.

Rhodes began planning last winter, a year after his grandfather’s death from pancreatic cancer in December 2013. Inspired by his grandfather’s 11-year battle with the disease, Rhodes spent his freshman winter break researching what types of cancer had the greatest need for research and funding.

Though he never met a child cancer patient until the summer of 2015, Rhodes said his research compelled him to direct the project toward childhood cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, the U.S. has seen an increase in the rate of diagnoses of pediatric cancers over the last few decades. Although survival rates have dramatically improved at the same time, the American Cancer Society still predicts that over 10,000 children under 15-years-old will be diagnosed with cancer in 2015, and over 1,200 of those cases will be fatal.

Additionally, St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a charity for childhood cancer research, has reported that only four percent of all federal funds for cancer research are designated for childhood cancer.

Rhodes returned to campus in January 2015 with statistics in hand and a plan in mind for how to set “Rhodes 2 A Cure” into motion. First, he had to spread the word.

“I remember telling a few close friends on campus as soon as I got back [from winter break], and of course they thought I was nuts, so I knew I was on the right track at that point,” Rhodes said.

Mackenzie Fiss, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, was one of those initially skeptical friends.

“At first, I didn’t really know if he was actually going to do it,” Fiss said. She said it has been exciting to watch the plan’s progression from a seemingly off-the-wall idea to a full-fledged campaign.

Rhodes’ friend Frank Mariscal, a sophomore in the School of International Service, was also surprised by the lofty goal.

“It kind of blew my mind,” he said.

Mariscal learned about Rhodes’ plan to bike across the country last November, before Rhodes had decided to devote the trip to pediatric cancer research. After questioning the logistics of the ride, including the money, time, training and equipment involved, Mariscal said he was confident that Rhodes would be able to complete the ride.

“When he says he’s going to accomplish a goal, he’s most likely going to do it,” Mariscal said.

That spring, things really started to get rolling for “Rhodes 2 A Cure.”

“Today, February 16, 2015, I officially kickstart my campaign to help raise awareness and funding that will lead to a cure for pediatric cancer,” Rhodes wrote in a Facebook and Instagram post, accompanied by an image of his tentative route and the “Rhodes 2 A Cure” logo. He received an outpouring of encouragement from friends and family members who showed their support with comments like “That’s my man!” and “Proud of you, Alec!”

In April, Rhodes launched his first fundraiser in collaboration with St. Baldrick’s. After months of training, he completed a marathon 12-hour stationary bike ride on the Eric Friedheim Quadrangle on April 25. Immediately after, he shaved his head to promote the “bald is beautiful” movement, which is meant to help cancer patients who lose hair during chemotherapy feel more comfortable.

The event raised $1,757 of Rhodes’ $5,000 goal. This year, he plans to double both the fundraising goal and hours of riding by biking for 24 hours to raise $10,000.

In the spring of 2016, Rhodes also plans to establish an on-campus club around “Rhodes 2 A Cure” to continue increasing support from the AU community.

When he’s not working on nonprofit foundation paperwork or training for hours on his bike, Pegasus, Rhodes is working on his lobbying skills to channel some of the political support he will need to change the federal funding allocations for pediatric cancer.

In September, pediatric cancer awareness month, he attended the Childhood Cancer Summit to introduce a his plan to lawmakers, including Texas Rep. Michael McCaul (R), the co-chair and founder of the Congressional Childhood Cancer Caucus. Rhodes also visited with families and other cancer research organizations at CureFest for Childhood Cancer on the National Mall in the same month. Next year, he hopes “Rhodes 2 A Cure” will have a booth at CureFest.

“I want the nonprofit to be as big as Livestrong, but just for pediatric cancer,” he said.

Political support will also play a large role in his cross-country bike tour, Rhodes said. The ride will cover about 30 states and will include major cities like Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles and Chicago. Rhodes hopes to meet with as many lawmakers as possible along the way and use his movement to influence funding. When he reaches California, he said he intends to meet with representatives and doctors from St. Baldrick’s Foundation as well as leaders from Stand Up To Cancer, a cancer research organization.

Meeting with those affected by pediatric cancer will also be of paramount importance to Rhodes.

“I’ll meet with families and patients to pray with them and instill hope that a cure is on the way,” he said. “I’ll also meet with doctors to find out the progress of pediatric cancer research and find out what still needs to be done.”

Even with all the attention his movement is sure to draw, Rhodes still wears his grandfather’s final gift, a necklace with a small silver crucifix, every day — even with his American-flag-patterned shorts or sky-diving tuxedo — as a constant reminder of his grandfather’s influence. Fiss said that for all the bravado involved with “Rhodes 2 A Cure,” the campaign is not about its founder.

“He just wants to help people,” Fiss said. “He wants to use what he’s good at to help others.”

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