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Thursday, Feb 23, 2017
The Sun

Crossing the country for cancer cure

Like most grandparents, Michael and Lois Libenson's granddaughter was the apple of their eyes - spending time at the house, playing with granddad and scrapbooking with grandmom. So when their 9-year-old granddaughter, Sammy Rotman, died from pediatric cancer Sept. 17, 2008, at home in Bow, N.H., the Libensons were devastated But rather than spend idle time mourning the loss, Michael Libenson decided to turn the solemn experience into one of awareness, philanthropy, fitness, achievement and mostly, one of joy. A novice long-distance bicycle rider, Michael has rounded up eight bicycle riders from Sun City Center - six men, one woman and a grey parrot - to cruise the asphalt in a 2,400-mile trip from Sun City, Ariz., to Sun City Center, to help battle a disease.
During a recent organizational meeting at the Libenson's Regal Manor Way home, the riders discussed trip details, from the time they leave by plane March 11, 2011, until they return home by bicycle. Besides riding for a cure, the group hopes the ride will encourage others along the way to do what they can to help In addition, the riders want to let the world know although most Sun City Center residents are retired, they're far from idle. Encouraged by their friends, Kings Point residents Dick Vogt, 75, and his wife, Sue, 73 - who started bicycling in their 50s and who rode cross-country from Seattle to Kennebunk Beach, Maine, in 1999 - the wheels on "SammyRides" began to turn. "We said, 'Gee, maybe that would be interesting; maybe the four of us should go across the country to raise money for pediatric cancer,' " said Michael Libenson, a retired psychologist originally from Bow, N.H. "We talked about it and it just opened up into a greater Sun City Center activity." Through word to the Sarasota Manatee Bicycle Club and local groups, Michael Libenson and the Vogts - who will lead the ride - soon recruited others willing to use pedal power to help fight cancer: John Bear, 70, retired from commerce; Mike Brown, 61, a retired telephone transmissions engineer; Adolf Lex, 70, a retired tool and dye maker; Jim Wheeler, 70, a retired magazine editor; and "Harry," a 20-year-old grey parrot that has travelled over 25,000 miles, riding on Wheeler's shoulder. During 2009, the group began logistically organizing the 60-day trip through the desert, over hills, into marshlands and along beaches. Ahead of the team, Nora and Woody Nelson, 70, retired from the Centers for Disease Control, will drive a car with a trailer, setting up stops city to city, including visits to hospitals to visit children with cancer. Lois Libenson will drive a second car with a trailer attached, carrying the riders' amenities. Riding 24-speed recumbent and 21-speed road bicycles, the group hopes to average 40 to 50 miles per day, with gradual downhill trips to a 1,800-foot uphill climb in Arizona. The group has been practicing with 35-mile trips twice per week around south Hillsborough County. "We have to increase our capacities to be able to tolerate those rides at our ages," said Libenson, who's lived in Sun City Center for five years. "We want to be role models for the younger generation so they take care of their health. When they get to be 75, they'll be able to ride across the country as well." Sammy, who loved to dance, had osteosarcoma, the second most common primary malignancy of the bone. She had her left leg amputated in February 2007. Two months later, she was taken on a whirlwind tour of Hollywood by former model Heather Mills after Bow residents raised $25,000 for her care. To get going, SammyRides has already raised $53,000 from friends and family, as well as through T-shirt sales. The group is looking for foundation contributions from corporate sponsors to help supplement donations, which go to Team Will, a tax-exempt Sacramento, Calif.-based community of cyclists raising funds for childhood cancer research. Team Will has set up an account for SammyRides contributions to be used for cancer research at the group's discretion and is also providing technical support. Ken Scarberry, executive director for Team Will, said the SammyRides riders exemplify Team Will's mission and efforts to help fight cancer. Team Will riders have made two cross-country bike trips for cancer awareness since its founding in 2005. "They (SammyRides) want to do something before they leave for someone just coming into this life. I respect that," said Scarberry, from his Sacramento office. "We're helping them out because we share the sorrow of having lost children to cancer." Libenson said two to three more riders may be added, preferably with long-distance experience. To ride, donate or volunteer, call (813) 938-4974 or e-mail paula@sammyrides.com.

Reporter Paul Catala can be reached at (813) 731-1970 or pcatala@mediageneral.com.

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