“As soon as I walked out you could see massive crowds forming, and there were all sorts of people there: patients, doctors nurses, caregivers,” said Leigh Funderburk.
The Southbury mom was at Smilow Cancer Hospital, and it was in that moment as she watched the Smilow Salute that she was sold on the Closer to Free Ride.
“As soon as the riders started to kind of come through, it was just this incredible rush of excitement,” Funderburk said. “And so right then and there I was like: we need to do this.”
She was at Smilow Cancer Hospital with her 13-year old son Otto, who was there for treatment of leukemia.
“He was a huge baseball fan, he played baseball pretty much his entire life,” Funderburk said. “He was on our local travel team. Just really enjoyed life, loved people.”
Otto was diagnosed in June of 2018 and Funderburk says the family was welcomed at Smilow the moment they arrived. She says they were made to feel like it was OK to be there.
“Our experience here was, was amazing,” Funderburk said. “Our doctors were, hands down, wonderful people, but the nursing staff was incredible.”
Otto passed away six months later in December of 2018. The next year Funderburk joined closer to free with Team Tommy Fund, which includes some of Otto’s nurses who became like family. Some of them are cancer survivors themselves.
“These girls put their heart and souls you know into their career. They’re there for the patients 24/7 as much as possible, and just knowing they went through that themselves when they were younger, it was very encouraging for us as a family,” Funderburk said. “To see someone in those shoes who went through those treatments who survived and is now active in their community. it only makes you think that’s going to be your child.”
She rides with her daughter Tess, who’s now 14. This will be their third Closer to Free ride and so far, they’ve raised $2,000 for Smilow Cancer Hospital and Yale Cancer Center.
She’s hoping for a return to an in-person event this year.
“Everyone has a connection to childhood cancer, whether its someone in their family, a friend of theirs, or if they’re a survivor themselves. It’s just great to be around that energy knowing that you're all there for the common good,” Funderburk said.
They often think of Otto when they hit some challenges on the course like hills that seem impossible.
“Both of us were like ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do this.’ And then like you just kind of take a step back and you’re like look at everything Otto had to go through, so it kind of helped us channel that energy.”
They’re also riding in memory of her sister Sarah, and mother-in-law who both also passed away from leukemia. Funderburk says her family has always been their strongest supporters, and Otto would be proud.
“I think he’d be hands down over the moon.”
NBC Connecticut is the proud media partner of the Closer to Free Ride.