Like many 4-year-olds, Mary Kate Zweidinger is an active girl. When she’s not attending preschool at The Francis Xavier Warde School in the West Loop, she likes to ride her scooter and play with chalk outside her home in North Center.
But recently, Mary Kate got an opportunity do something not many children can say they’ve done. Eight months after being diagnosed with an extremely rare form of pediatric cancer called Wilm’s Tumor in August 2018, she got to ring the bell at Lurie Children’s Hospital signaling that she was cancer free.
Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in children between 1 and 14 years old, according to the American Cancer Society.
In late April, a dozen bike riders kicked off from Santa Monica, California for an uber bike marathon called W.A.R. on Wheels (WOW). Spanning 2,499 miles from the Pacific Ocean to west suburban St. Charles, they’re riding the length of Route 66 in an effort to raise money for Cal’s Angels, a non-profit pediatric cancer foundation based in St. Charles, with riders from across the nation invited to join them along the way.
The goal: to reach $2,499,000 in donations so Cal’s Angels can grant Wishes for kids with cancer, raise Awareness about the disease, and fund Research to eliminate it entirely. W.A.R. — you get it.
Cal’s Angels was founded in 2007 after Cal Sutter, a 14-year-old Elgin boy, died from Acute Myelogenous Leukemia. Stacy Sutter, Cal’s stepmother, said his fight with cancer gave the family a first-hand look at how difficult life becomes for children and their families after they receive a diagnosis, and she knew it was imperative to keep fighting after Cal had passed away.
“We took several months to grieve but eventually you get to a fork in the road, where are you gonna lay in the bed with the covers over your eyes or are you gonna get out there and make a difference?” Stacy Sutter said.
After years of fundraising, Cal’s Angels eventually grew into the organization it is today, funding pediatric cancer research, granting wishes to children across Illinois who are battling pediatric cancer and providing a support system for their families. Mary Kate is among the children, locally, who received a boost from the organization.
Brad Beetham, 45, from west suburban Yorkville, joined the foundation’s board after it helped his family throughout his 15-year-old daughter’s cancer treatment. His daughter, Madi, beat the disease in 2017 after battling Lymphoblastic Lymphoma for years, but Brad knows that every child isn’t so lucky. When he heard that Glen Galloway, 60, from Wayne, was putting together this ride for Cal’s Angel’s, he didn’t hesitate to sign up.
“This decision was pretty easy to come to, assuming I’m physically able to do [the ride], and I will, it was a no brainer,” Brad Beetham said. “If you talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk.”
Galloway, who was born in Chicago and now owns manufacturing facilities in St. Charles and Elmhurst, came up with the idea for WOW last year after riding a portion of the Tour of California known as the Gibraltar Climb, an 8-mile ride that spans over 4,000 feet uphill.
“A couple of days later we were thinking about what’s our next challenge on a bicycle and I came up with the idea to ride across the country,” Galloway said. “And as the conversation continued we figured if we’re going to do this we should do it for a cause, and I had just been to the [Cal’s Angels] gala a couple months beforehand and just couldn’t think of a better cause than pediatric cancer. And as far as pediatric cancer is concerned there’s not a better organization than Cal’s Angels.”
While Mary Kate was at Lurie Children’s Hospital, Cal’s Angels came through with toys and a special bag for Mary Kate’s family, which included “the things you don’t think about,” like special pillows and blankets, according to Mary Kate’s mother Sarah McNamara.
McNamara, who also has a 6-year-old and a newborn, said it was “heartbreaking and hard to see your kid go through chemo,” but that “Cal’s Angels was a shining light throughout the process.”
Mary Kate knows about WOW and thinks it’s “awesome [that] they’re riding their bikes for a really long time to raise money for Cal’s Angels.” She was also able to meet Brad and Madi Beetham before Brad took off on the ride.
“It feels nice to be able to be there for them and talk to them and ease their anxiety about it,” Madi said. Brad, for his part, had about 25 kids sign the wheels of his bike. He says they are dedicating each day of the ride to different children and are Skyping into local classrooms, where teachers will be implementing the ride into their curriculum.
The 37-day mega trip ends June 2 with a 50-mile ride from Joliet to Mount Saint Mary Park in St. Charles, where a 103.5 KISS FM DJ will host a victory party with food vendors, ice cream and free face painting. Those who are able are invited to participate in the final leg.
The WOW team is documenting their trip on Instagram and Twitter under the handle @waronwheels1. A $10 donation can be made by texting the word GIVE2CALS to the number 20222, while larger donations, including per-mile pledges, can be made at www.calsangels.org/wow/