Cycling Coast to Coast to Help Kids

The UConn Health tradition of students spending their last free summer bicycling cross-country to raise money for a charitable cause continues for a 17th year. Rising second-year dental student Brian Legato and medical students Julia Neri and Dustin Moore make up the 2022 Coast to Coast for a Cause team. Hear what they had to say about their adventure the day before they started it.

(June 2022, Julia Neri, Dustin Moore, Brian Legato, Chris DeFrancesco)


Chris: A UConn Health tradition continues for a 17th year. Three students are spending the summer on a cross country bicycle tour: Coast to Coast for a Cause.

This is the UConn Health Pulse, a podcast to help you get to know UConn Health and its people a little better, and hopefully leave you with some health information you’ll find useful. This is Chris DeFrancesco. Now it started in 2006, when two UConn medical students peddled from California to Connecticut to raise money for leukemia research. Over the years, the route and the cause have changed, and of course, so have the students.

Today, we meet this year’s Coast to Coast team. We have medical student Julia Neri, who’s also pursuing a master of public health degree, we have dental student Brian Legato, and medical student Dustin Moore. Thank you, all three of you, for joining us today.

Julia: Thank you so much, Chris.

Dustin: Thanks for having us.

Chris: Let’s start off with what this year’s cause is. Who can tell us about that?

Julia: This year we are biking for the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, which is a camp for children with serious illnesses. This is a place where they can raise a little hell. A lot of these children, they have really serious illnesses, they may even have a rare disease group, where all these kids can just go to camp. Because that’s such a huge part of any child’s growing up. And it’s a place where they don’t have to be seen as “the sick kid” anymore. They can really be that youthful young kid and just have fun and really see how much they can do even if they have an illness.

Chris: So tell us how pedaling coast-to-coast actually helps raise money for the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. What’s the fundraising element to that?

Brian: This year we have a goal of $15,000 that we want to raise, and all of this money goes directly to Hole in the Wall Camp. We’re not using any of it for ourselves. We’re fully self-funding our trip for it. We’ve had a variety of different fundraisers so far. Most notably we had a faculty talent show, which had a lot of shenanigans in it, lots of different student and faculty showing off just amazing performances. And all of it is just to kind of send more and more kids to camp.

It takes about a $2,500 to send one kid to camp, and so far we have, I think, just over 10,000. So we’ve sent four, we’re hoping for two more by the end of our trip.

Chris: Fantastic. You’re already off to a pretty good start. It sounds like.

Julia: Yeah, it’s really exciting!

Chris: How can people help?

Dustin: Just donating and talking about it. We’re trying to get the word out to as many people as possible, and the more people hear about it, the more reach we’ll get, and the more people will be willing to donate. I think it’s also really cool that we can say we’ve already raised $10,000, and that can really incentivize other people to be like, “A lot of people have already donated, maybe I should do that as well.”

Chris: What we’ll do is, we’ll put your website in the notes of the show and then people, anyone listening, can just click their way through and find out exactly how to get some money over to you.

All right, now we need to hear about what a little bit about each of you, first of all, academically. Dustin, go ahead, tell us a little bit about yourself, where are you from and what are you aspiring to be, or do you know yet?

Dustin: I’m from Berlin, New Hampshire. It’s a very rural small town near the border of Canada. And I’ve really wanted to be a doctor for a long time, since I was a little kid. When you grow up in a small town like that, people are like, “OK, yeah, sure.” But I’ve worked really hard, and now I’m here and I’m trying to do the best I can. I’m not really sure what specialty I want yet, but hopefully once we get into clerkships, we’ll figure that out.

Chris: People should know, you folks just finished your first year, so it’s not really decision time, just quite yet.

Dustin: Not yet, we have a couple of years.

Chris: Brian, you’re a rising second-year from the UConn School of Dental Medicine. But as I understand it, you end up in pretty much all the same classes as the medical students, for your first two years. Right?

Brian: Right, so the way that the dental school curriculum is set up is, other than a few classes, I’m pretty much just a medical student right now. But we do have our own unique introductory classes, getting our hand pieces all set up and learning the basics of what we need to know, but it’s been an incredible experience at UConn dental.

Chris: A little bit about you, where are you from and what are you aspiring to be within the field of dental medicine?

Brian: Originally I’m from Colchester, Connecticut, and I want to work half-time as well as teach half-time. We have a number of incredible professors here at this school, and they’ve really inspired me, and I’ve always liked teaching, so I want to kind of emulate what they are doing and continue on the tradition.

Chris: Excellent. And Julia — medical school, and our graduate school pursuing an MPH. So tell us how that’s going to work.

Julia: So I have been interested in public health since undergrad at UConn. I started taking some public health classes then, so I knew I wanted to continue that into my medical degree because I think it’s such an important aspect of health that sometimes we don’t always think about. And I really want to incorporate that as I move forward. I personally know that I want to go into pediatrics. There are so many children coming from all walks of life, and it’s really important to think about the public health aspect of that.

Chris: Excellent. Well, your level of motivation is quite impressive. And that carries on to my next question, which is what’s motivating you to give up your last free summer and pedal, what is it, almost 4,000 miles over the course of two months? How’d you get involved with this?

Julia: We really got involved because right off the bat, when we enter medical school, during our orientation period, the people from last year’s group come in and talk to us and they’re like, “Hey, there’s this awesome thing called Coast to Coast, everyone should do it.” So that really was the first time I’m like, “This sounds awesome, I’m totally going to do this.” And then it kind of just evolved from that where you have about 18 people that are like, “Yeah, I really want to do this,” down to all of a sudden, only three of us are actually doing it. So I really wanted to do this because of the great cause that it is for. It is for these children. I’ve grown up doing a lot of these different fundraising events for people with illness and this just fit really well with the mindset that I’ve always had going towards like, “We can do something to help other people, so why not do it” kind of thing. And I think about these children too, how they’re battling every day with these illnesses and they’re really, they are raising a little hell, so if they’re doing this every single day for months, maybe years, I can put myself through a little bit of hell for two months.

Chris: What about you, Dustin?

Dustin: Like Julia, I’m not new to the fundraising thing either. Serious illness affects everybody, whether you have a serious illness or somebody you love is affected. So I’ve done fundraising, primarily for cancer research in the past. Last time I went out, I did Relay for Life. I ran and walked 30 miles over the 18 hours in memory of my grandmother. This is kind of like the same deal. I’m a cyclist and I love camping. I’m the crunchy granola type that wears socks and sandals.

Chris: It’s true. I can attest to that.

Dustin: So I think this’ll be a really fun trip and it’s for, like Julia said, an amazing cause, so it’s really a win-win.

Chris: Alright, what about you, Brian? How’d you get involved?

Brian: Honestly, similar to the two of you, just getting so interested right in the beginning, and then slowly realizing this is like the last chance we’ll ever actually get to do something like this. And not only is it for a good cause, it seems so incredible to be able to see the country like this.

Chris: You said you’re a cyclist. How about, either one of you taken on any kind of distance endurance type physical challenges like this?

Julia: I was a runner and swimmer growing up. Last summer to raise money for cancer research I ran a half marathon on a Saturday, and then the very next day I swam a mile and a half in the ocean. Cycling? No. But running and swimming, yes, I’ve done that.

Chris: OK, what about you? You were shaking your head when I was asking?

Brian: Yeah, I’ve gotten very familiar the past several weeks with a stationary bike, but that’s about it. I’ve biked in the past, but nothing super long-distance like this, but, hopefully in the beginning we’ll get our bearings quick.

Chris: Sounds like when some bike maintenance is needed, that we’re going to you for that, right, Dustin?

Dustin: Yeah, that’ll be me. I’ve been doing it for about 10 years.

Chris: OK. What’s the longest you’ve bicycled for like one stretch?

Dustin: My longest ride has been a metric century, which is a hundred kilometers. I believe that comes out to 65, 66 miles, something like that. But I’ve done a few of those.

Chris: The general plan now, I mean, we’ve had some version of this, right, for 17 years now, and we used to start at the Golden Gate Bridge, and now we start up in Anacortes, Washington, so you’re going to Seattle. And I should say, by the time anyone’s listening to this, you’ll already be out on the road, heading back east. We’re actually speaking to you the day before you leave. So tell us a little about how this whole thing breaks down.

Dustin: We sent our bikes out a couple of weeks ago, and basically we’re going to be going, like Julia said, along the Northern Tier, which is basically following the Canadian border. Normally it would go up into Maine, but since we live here in Connecticut, we’re going to finish here in Connecticut. So we will go across Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan, briefly go up into Canada and then come back down through New York and into Connecticut and finish on the East Coast.

Chris: And you’re keeping a blog?

Julia: Yes, we are.

Chris: We’ll also put that link in the show notes I have to say, every year, the pictures on the blog get better and better because, and like you said, Brian, it’s such a great way to see the country. The photos are breathtaking, quite often, and they’re always fun. I’m always glad when I hear the students are doing a blog, because then we can all kind of follow along with you. And I’m sure it’s good for the parents and loved ones, too.

Julia: Yeah, definitely, and this year we’re also having an Instagram: @UConnCoastToCoast2022, so a lot of the photos will be on there as well, and it will have a link to all of our different blogs and possibly a TikTok as well, for video.

Chris: That might be a first.

Julia: Yeah!

Chris: OK, what are you most looking forward to?

Brian: I think almost all of us are looking forward to Glacier National park as being one of our major stops. We’ve heard just so much about it and it’s just such a beautiful place, so we definitely want to try and stop there if we can.

Julia: I’m also really looking forward to the Great Lakes. I have never actually seen like any of the Great Lakes. So that’s really exciting, to be able to take a ferry across one of them.

Chris: Excellent.

Dustin: Glacier is my choice as well, but I guess to be a little different, Niagara Falls will also be cool. When we go, we’ll go down there,

Chris: What are you most worried about?

Julia: Oh, the first two weeks, definitely the first two weeks. Because, since we’re starting in Washington, we’re going over the Cascades and the Rockies, so definitely worried about all those mountains for the first two weeks.

Dustin: Yeah, getting in shape will be tough.

Chris: Well, the ride forces you to get in shape though, doesn’t it? I mean, that’s what I’ve been hearing year to year. It’s like, by the time you’re back, those first two weeks were really hard, but you could handle them a lot better by the time–

Dustin: We set the best of intentions, we wanted to train and make sure we were ready, but that, as we were studying for our exams, went by the wayside. So we don’t have a whole lot of miles under our belt so far this spring, so we’ll be really hurting the first couple of weeks. But like you said, then, then we’ll be fine after that.

Chris: What are you most worried about?

Brian: Probably not knowing how to fix my bike and Dustin being 20 miles ahead of me.

Julia: Don’t worry. I’ll help you.

Brian: Yeah, Julia and I have a pact to stay together, even if Dustin goes far ahead.

Chris: And for folks who don’t know, two months, I mean, it’s not like you have established place to spend the night, right? So you have a variety of different things you’ll be doing over the course of those two months. Tell us a little bit about how that works.

Dustin: It’s kind of play-it-by-ear kind of thing, but we’re going to try to have a place to stay about a week in advance. So we’ll continually find places as we’re going, because you never know, it may rain, it may be 110 degrees one day and we shouldn’t bike in that. So we kind of have to be flexible. And so we’re going to be staying at a few different kinds of places. We’ll be doing a lot of camping. We’ll be staying with hosts through this website called Warm Showers, which is basically a website where cyclists host other cyclists at their personal homes. And because we’re going on a really popular touring route, the Northern Tier, there’s a ton of warm showers locations along that route. All of the interactions I’ve had with them so far talking and trying to find places have been so positive. They know UConn because we do this every year, so a lot of them are excited to have us back. And if we can’t do one of those two, we’ll get a motel or hotel or something like that.

Chris: Coast to coast, so you start in the Pacific, end of the Atlantic. So where in the Atlantic are you going to actually complete the ride when it’s all said and done, did you work that part out yet?

Dustin: Old Saybrook I believe is the last stop right on the ocean.

Julia: Yeah, we stop here in Farmington, get a night’s rest at home, and then people join us for that very last leg of the ride.

Chris: Very good. Well, thank you so much for taking a few minutes right before you leave to tell me about this and I wish you the best of luck. Please, safe travels.

You have heard from Dustin Moore from the UConn School of Medicine, Brian Legato from the UConn School of Dental Medicine, and Julia Neri from both the medical school and the graduate school.

And that is our time for today, so for Julia and Dustin and Brian, I am Chris DeFrancesco. Thank you for listening to the UConn Health Pulse. Be sure to subscribe so you can catch us next time, and please share with a friend.