Hard to imagine what motivates four young locals to take on a challenge of mental and physical endurance in an effort to support those suffering from cystic fibrosis, a disease they knew little about. Cystic fibrosis, or CF, is a genetic disease affecting the lungs, pancreas and other organs. It clogs airways, by trapping bacteria leading to chronic infections, inflammation, and complications like respiratory failure.
The challenge the team took on was to paddle across international waters from the Bahamas to Florida. Dubbed the Coastal Crusaders, the team consisted of Connor Bowden, Jessica Simon, Holly Heidenreich, and Victoria Stiehl. They made the epic 80-mile ‘Crossing for a Cure’ challenge relay-style.
Crossing for a Cure (#X4AC) was created by Travis Suit. His daughter Piper was diagnosed with an aggressive form of CF at the age of four. A few years later, after learning the salty ocean air was beneficial for those with CF, Travis and three friends made the first Crossing. Since that time, the event has grown. This year, the Crossing for a Cure had over 200 paddlers registered with over 80 support boats. The fundraising goal for 2019 was $500,000.00 which the organization exceeded, reporting well over $600,000.00 raised by press-time.
Travis equates the Crossing to planting a seed. When nurtured the seed grows into a majestic tree. For the team, awareness of CF, Piper, and the #X4AC challenge came from Josh Ferris, a local policeman. Josh met Travis and Piper a few years ago and became close friends. His enthusiasm for the cause is contagious. Josh is an avid participant in the Crossing, fundraising tens of thousands of dollars and making the arduous crossing two times as an individual. This year, Josh participated in the Crossing as a support crew member helping to orchestrate the logistical side of the event.
“Having listened to Josh talk about the Crossing and seeing him promote local awareness, we realized it is something we wanted to try,” said teammate Jessica Simon. “As a team, we raised almost $6000.00 for the cause, we pushed ourselves physically and mentally, and made some lasting connections.”
Capt. Frank Messana, joined the Coastal Crusader team and enlisted the use of his boat. He and friend Alex Wagoner, both from North Naples Fire Department, were the support crew for the Crossing Crusaders. The entire team headed to Bimini about 3:00 am Wednesday. Once they reached their destination, the next two days were spent going to introductory festivities, exploring the island, and attending safety briefings.
The team participated in the second annual Paddle-Out ceremony honoring the entire CF community including those who have lost their lives. As a group, they are reminded of the lives that have been lost to pave the way toward a cure and the strength it takes for the CF warriors to push through their journey. They call out names of those they know and finish by each throwing a rose in the water, a symbol of hope and empowerment for the CF community.
Launch time was at midnight and Connor Bowden was the first to paddle. Connor, Jessica, Holly and Victoria would take turns paddling in intervals of 20 minutes each. The seas were rough, sometimes rolling four feet as they put their heads down and paddled on. They fell off a few times when they lost concentration, the cool dark water was the quickest way to be brought back to the present moment, refresh, take a deep breath, and grind on. At one point over the radio, they heard a passing freighter ask why there were so many boats in the middle of the ocean that early in the morning. All night and into the next day they paddled. By early afternoon, exhausted, the team had crossed the gulf stream and up the coast to the beach in Lake Worth, more than 12 hours after they started.
The following day after a good rest, team member Holly Heidenreich commented, “Hands down the best thing I’ve ever been a part of. So many amazing people for such an awesome cause. Paddled 80 miles for Cystic Fibrosis and I can’t wait for next year!” Connor Bowden echoed similar sentiments, “Crossing for a Cure was really something special, I feel honored to be a part of the Crossing family!” Victoria Stiehl added, “Easily one of my greatest accomplishments to date. So proud of my team. There are so many emotions but not enough words to explain this feeling.”
Those same sentiments are expressed by nearly all the participants of the Crossing. “While speaking to the reservation desk at a hotel near the Lake Worth landing site, I learned about the reservationists’ young daughter recently diagnosed with CF and was able to connect her to Piper’s Angels Foundation. It felt like it was meant to be,” said Jessica Simon. Another good sign the seed is growing.
Travis Suit was onto something when he organized this tremendous effort. It must be what happens when passion, sincerity and selflessness come together over a good cause. Travis and the Piper’s Angels l Foundation’s goal for 2020 is to raise $1,000,000.00. Registration for the 2020 Crossing for a Cure event is already open.
Proceeds from the Crossing support Piper’s Angels Foundation, a non-profit 501(c)(3). The foundation’s mission is to support and improve the lives of families in the cystic fibrosis community through awareness, education, life expanding activities, financial support, as well as the funding of critical research.