Illini 4000 host cancer awareness gallery event

By Taylor Odisho

Before the summer of 2012, Tori Cross viewed cancer in a way that’s familiar to many people: it’s a death sentence. After biking across the nation and talking to people affected by the disease, she realized it can sometimes be a gift, a blessing or a friend to some.

Cross, junior in neuroscience, is president of Illini 4000 for Cancer, a student-run RSO. Illini 4000 members bike cross-country for approximately 70 days each summer to raise money for cancer awareness and organizations such as the American Cancer Society and Camp Kesem.

On Saturday, Illini 4000 held its annual Portraits Gallery event, hosted by the Portraits Project at the University YMCA.

The Portraits Project is a subproject of Illini 4000. During the trip in the summer, students interview people they meet along the way that have been affected by cancer and then write a profile for each person. Those profiles are put on display at the Portraits Gallery the following fall. 

“People just want to share their experiences with cancer,” said Casey Fee, junior in Engineering and director of portraits for Illini 4000. “We meet them at churches, at gas stations, at stay-overs and people just come up to us, read our jerseys and say ‘You’re doing this? Let me tell you what happened to me. Here’s my story.’”

Fee said the project has changed her in many ways. The people she met during her ride were actively fighting cancer, were caretakers or doctors and nurses, and they were stronger, happier and more positive than Fee could have imagined.

“It’s just really inspiring,” Fee said. “Life is bigger than we know it and more fragile than we know it. I’ve learned a lot.”

Not only has this project impacted the people in Illini 4000, but it has also helped those that have been profiled.

“The people that we meet, I think it gives them a lot of hope,” Cross said. “It’s really scary to feel very alone while you’re fighting the disease and this builds a community for them … and it really kind of builds this really strange family with everyone that has been affected by it.”

Illini 4000 will be hosting a gala in the spring similar to the Portraits Gallery. Students can get involved with Illini 4000 by signing up to bicycle in the summer, or helping them fundraise during the school year for the trip. 

Catherine Kemp, sophomore in ACES and logistics director of the Portraits Project, shared what motivated her to join the club.

“I joined Illini 4000 for my own personal stories, people I knew who had cancer and passed away, but I think it really opened my eyes,” Kemp said. “It’s not just me and my loved ones. It’s really such a universal thing and we say it all the time — cancer doesn’t discriminate. It affects everyone.”

To join the club, students must apply and interview with the board members. If they’re accepted, they must attend weekly meetings and mandatory workouts twice a week. The trip starts two weeks after classes end. The trip starts in New York and ends when riders cross the bridge to San Francisco. There, they are greeted by family, friends and board members.

Eric Baehr, senior in LAS, will take his first ride with Illni 4000 this summer. Although he’s nervous to be alone for two months, he’s looking forward to making the trip.

“I’m most excited to meet people around this country and get to know them and find out what their story is and eventually put together this cool documentary for the Portraits Project,” Baehr said.

Taylor can be reached at [email protected]