Marisa Peryer

On Saturday, Sept. 9, over 2000 cyclists rode through New Haven in support of a common goal: to raise funds for patient care and cancer research at the Smilow Cancer Hospital and Yale Cancer Center.

The Closer to Free Ride was established 13 years ago to assist the Smilow Cancer Hospital in expanding its fundraising options. With the goal of establishing a fundraising event that could be open to everyone, a cycling event was chosen because it could include patients, workers, donors, community members, healthcare professionals and Yale New Haven Hospital leadership.

“We had 237 riders the first year, and here we are 13 years later with over 2000,” Jessica Scheps, a development event specialist for Yale New Haven Hospital’s Development Office and an organizer of the event, wrote to the News. “I truly believe that it grew so successfully because the way we model this event so that … 100% of the dollars that the riders and volunteers raise can stay right at Smilow and Yale Cancer Center.”

Each cyclist chose from 10-, 25-, 40-, 65- or 100-mile routes. At 6:45 a.m., the cyclists celebrated with an opening ceremony at the Yale Bowl, where they would later return to cross the finish line.

For Scheps, corporate and in-kind sponsors were essential for ensuring that 100 percent of the funds raised by riders and volunteers could go directly to Smilow and Yale Cancer Center. They helped provide food and drinks for the riders at the finish line, and they also covered billboard and TV advertising expenses. Their consistent collaboration has sustained support and expansion of the fundraising cause, which has raised $26 million since 2011. 

Scheps noted that the event receives a lot of support from non-riders alongside the cyclists. This year alone, the Closer to Free Ride included about 600 volunteers who were crucial to the execution of the event.

“Those volunteers really make the event happen,” Scheps said. “They’re feeding our riders at the rest stops, they’re hanging route sign arrows, so people know where to go. They’re directing traffic for busy intersections. They’re parking cars, so it really takes a team of volunteers.”

Kristen Alves is the volunteer coordinator for the Closer to Free Ride. Like Scheps, Alves has worked with the Ride since its inception and began her position as volunteer coordinator last year. For Alves, the ride allows her to engage with the New Haven community by recruiting and supporting the volunteers who participate in the ride. 

She believes that a sense of community develops among both the volunteers who help in the fundraising efforts as well as those who have ride-day responsibilities, such as being a bike marshal or driving alongside cyclists. 

“Our volunteers are amazing,” Alves said. “I cannot say enough great things about them. They really come out, many of our volunteers come back year after year. So it really is Closer to Free. It’s like a big family. And I’m really just so happy to be a part of it.”

The Smilow Salute outside the Smilow Cancer Center on Park St. was one of the primary milestones for bike riders. At the Salute location, patients, survivors, nurses, volunteers and community members gathered to cheer on the riders as they continued on their different routes. Scheps emphasized that this is “the riders’ favorite part of the event” and it enables community members to encourage one another in a meaningful way.

Jaime Krasnitski, a breast cancer survivor and rider, rode on the 10-mile route with her daughter, while her husband completed the 100-mile route. The family began riding together as a team six years ago under the ‘Krazy Krew’ moniker. Over the years, Krasnitski and her family have raised $23,000. 

“They actually have a different jersey for survivors, so you know who’s a survivor, you know who your fellow comrades are,” Krasnitski said. “When they see my jersey they give me a smile. They give me a thumbs up and they give me congratulations in passing.” 

Krasnitski emphasized that, due to her route’s leisurely pace, she was able to engage in conversations with other riders. 

In one instance, this allowed her to connect with another woman cancer survivor. 

“There’s these little moments throughout the day, where you make these personal connections with total strangers,” Krasnitski said. “Those are the moments that make the day Closer to Free, really very special.” 

Krasnitski reflected on the significance and value of Closer to Free in serving as an additional layer of support to address the challenges and obstacles that many cancer patients confront. 

As a cancer survivor, she recognizes the difficulty of coping with cancer and how seeing fundraising events such as Closer to Free supporting patient services is an amazing opportunity for her to give back and foster a community of support for those battling or having battled cancer.

“My ultimate goal is for nobody to have to hear the word ‘You have cancer,’”Krasnitski said. “That’s my dream. That’s my goal. That’s what I believe in.”

Close to Free is accepting donations until the end of September. 

Abel Geleta covers Yale New Haven Health (YNHH) for the Science and Technology desk at the News. Previously, he covered stories and topics at the intersection of Science and Social Justice. Originally from Ethiopia, Abel has lived in northern Virginia for the past 12 years. He is currently a junior in Berkeley college studying History of Science, Medicine and Public Health as a scholar in the Global Health Studies Program