When Rylan became sick his parents made the 1,000 mile round-trip journey several times a month to get him treatment. They did this multiple times a month, something any parent would do when their child is diagnosed with Stage IV High-Risk Neuroblastoma, a type of brain cancer.

Cyclists stop at a supplies tentUnfortunately, this is not uncommon for families dealing with childhood cancer in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P., often called the “yoop” by locals) – a breathtaking but remote area with limited treatment options. Families often need to drive anywhere from 300 to 600 miles one way  for treatment and as often as every day, depending on their child’s condition and treatment plan. Nikki M. describes a varying schedule of daily IV chemotherapy appointments along with weekly or monthly treatments for her child. “One trip for us is 523 miles round trip,” she says.

Although this has long been a challenge, things are changing with the help of Lion Christine Smith, the D-10 childhood cancer chair. Smith and her fellow Lions have supported community programs such as Camp Quality Michigan, which offers summer camp experiences for children with cancer, as well as Maggie’s Wigs for Kids and Kids Kicking Cancer. In fact, their efforts raised US$25,000 by the end of 2020.

Two people embraceBut there was another project that Smith was working on which would change the trajectory of the Childhood Cancer Committee’s aspirations. Ultimately, it would also change the lives of families struggling with childhood cancer’s extraordinary financial, emotional, and physical demands.

In 2021, Smith’s “I Trekked the UP” fundraiser caught the eye of local triathlete James Studinger. An avid biker, Studinger liked the idea of a local initiative to benefit families navigating childhood cancer. Coincidentally, in 2018, Studinger created a U.P.-based road race called “Tour da Yoop, eh”, which gets its name from the local slang for the U.P.—“Yoop”—and the tendency for many of its residents to end their sentences with “eh?”

Studinger and Smith teamed up to maximize the reach and potential of the fundraising. The duo workedCyclists cross the finish line alongside Lions and non-Lion volunteers throughout the community for the inaugural effort in 2021, but 2022 was something else altogether.

The “Tour da Yoop, eh” is no ordinary road race. It’s a 1,200-mile course with an elevation gain of 30,000 feet over ten grueling days.

There were injuries, mechanic issues, and even, at times, tears. But, daunting or not, the fundraiser earned more than US$50,000 in 2022 alone. And Studinger, who has since joined the Lions as a member, is quick to reflect on everyone’s efforts.

Cyclist speaks to young child“Lions’ members showed up day in and day out with support, smiles, food, encouragement, and kindness,” he says. “The connection with Lions Clubs throughout the Upper Peninsula was truly special.”

A blog post on the event’s website encapsulates it well: “As the miles accumulate, the human story develops.”

During the event, Lions and volunteers met with some of the families. Cameron is just two years old and has had 47 Chemotherapy appointments and a bone  marrow transplant. “To hear stories like this really pulls at your heartstrings,” says Zach Smith.  “I had the pleasure to be there when the Lions Club presented [Cameron’s] parents with a check to help defray some of the enormous travel expenses they have had to endure. This made the 1200-mile ride all worth it!”

Swag from Tour de Yoop, eh.The families connect with the Lions through word of mouth or outreach, explains Christine Smith. “In 2019, we knew of zero families, and now we are connected to more than sixty-five. Our mission is to first and foremost help our families with travel, medical, and household bills.” She works tirelessly to connect within the local area to make sure families who need help connect with the D-10 Lions, “I have connected with all the social workers and child-life specialists and physicians, and we get referrals from them.”

And one such family was Rylan’s.

In fact, there’s an entire hill on the course dedicated to Rylan G. from Hubbell, Michigan. He and his family were the first to benefit from the Lions’ childhood cancer fundraising. So Smith and other volunteers met them in 2021, just before the Copper Harbor loop portion of the race. Of course, he was thrilled when James Studinger gave him a bike ride, and they made plans to make it an annual tradition.

“Rylan wanted to make it back on that bike again,” says Christine Smith. “Instead, he gained his angel wings.”

Prior to Rylan’s death, on July 18th, his father wrote a letter to the Lions Club. In it, he described “chemotherapy, stem cell transplants, radiation, immunotherapy, and multiple surgeries,” and for all of these, they had to travel 500 miles one way.

“While we were in the hospital during the first week, someone told us about Chris Smith with the U.P. Lions and that if we needed any help, she was the person to call. The Lions have been like a soft fluffy cloud and a ray of sunshine that has continued to make us feel as comfortable as possible since Day 1, and we can never thank them enough.”