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Ride for Roswell raises record $3 million More than 7,500 cyclists, 1,500 volunteers participate in 16th annual fundraiser

The simple, hand-scrawled word "Daddy" in orange and green marker said it all.

The small white paper dangling from 4-year-old Marina Steck's pink princess bicycle read, "In Memory of my Daddy," and the little girl from Snyder was bubbling with excitement to be part of the 16th Ride for Roswell.

"I like to ride my bike, and this is for my Daddy," said Marina, before pedaling with training wheels during the event's three-mile family fun ride.

Marina's father, Garett Geake, died in May 2009 of a brain tumor.

"It just means so much, and it makes me happy that she can participate," said her mother, Casey Steck, who previously pulled her daughter on her bike in other rides for Roswell.

The event Saturday drew more than 7,500 cyclists and 1,500 volunteers to the major fundraiser for Roswell Park Cancer Institute. They broke a record, raising $3 million through pledges to surpass last year's $2.8 million that was raised for cancer research and patient care programs.

Cloudy skies and cool temperatures did not dampen the spirits nor enthusiasm of participants. From those riding with training wheels and carrying snacks in their bike baskets, to families and senior citizens -- some with matching T-shirts and shorts for their "team" -- all were dedicated in their mission, whether it was to ride three miles or 100 miles.

For Mark Piegay of South Buffalo, it was his first ride -- dedicated to his wife, Anne Marie Piegay, who died in February after a 15-month battle with cancer. Wearing black biker shorts and yellow T-shirts titled "Annie's Angels," his family's team was ready to go 20 miles after raising $4,000. The family has ridden previously in memory of Piegay's father and father-in-law, also Roswell patients. A niece, Kristin Piegay, was so driven by the effort that she bought a bike just two days earlier to join the effort.

"The work that everyone does at Roswell, the care and compassion, is incredible," Mark Piegay said, nibbling on a bagel before beginning his ride. "They're making great strides every day to battle this terrible disease."

For some, the ride began as early as 6:15 a.m.

Dr. Donald Trump, Roswell's president and CEO, saw the girl on her pink bike with her "Daddy" sign. He didn't know then that it was Marina Steck, but the sight of her handwritten note moved him.

"If that doesn't tug at your heart," Trump said of seeing the girl.

Trump and Candace Johnson, Roswell's deputy director, early Saturday completed the 13-mile trek with 170 riders bicycling from Roswell to the University at Buffalo's North Campus, where the 10 different bicycle routes began and ended after traversing part of Buffalo and a handful of towns.

"The incredible energy and support of the community is energizing and stimulating for the Roswell staff, researchers and physicians -- to know that so many people support them," Trump said of the cycling event. "Plus, it raises money for cancer research, understanding cancer and reducing the suffering by patients and their families."

The cycling event represents "the heartthrob of the institute," Johnson said.

"You see families with little kids, to the elderly, giving what they can," she said.

Cancer survivor Sean McNamara, 17, of Amherst, wouldn't have missed riding for anything -- not even his high school graduation this weekend, had the two events conflicted.

"If graduation landed on this date, I'd skip graduation to do this," McNamara said, who has raised nearly $5,000 for the ride and participated in it three times since he recovered from lymphoma detected in his nose and throat at age 13.

McNamara not only knows firsthand about cancer but watched the disease claim the lives of some of his friends this year.

"Cancer has claimed the lives of four of my close friends this year," said McNamara, who graduates today from Williamsville East High School and is a volunteer at Carly's Club for Kids & Cancer Research in Western New York, a nonprofit foundation at Roswell.

"It was heartbreaking. It was indescribable to lose four friends at once," said McNamara, who skipped his uncle's wedding Saturday to ride for Roswell. "This is why I do this (ride). I thank God every day for how lucky I am."

Eight-year-old Haley Jones of Snyder started her own grass-roots effort and raised $300 from 20 neighbors after being inspired by a Roswell presentation at Elmwood Franklin School this spring. She was all smiles to ride eight miles with her mother, Brigid Doherty, and neighbor and donor, Keith Bonaccio, husband of Dr. Ermelinda Bonaccio, director of mammography at Roswell.

"This is her own effort. I'm incredibly proud of Haley that she wanted to do it and that she's empathetic to people who have cancer. We're very close to Erme, and that had an impact," Doherty said.

Keith Bonaccio is no stranger to riding for Roswell, having done a 64-mile trek before.

"Roswell is part of our life every single day," he said. "My wife loves her patients, and they call our home."

First-time rider Sherrie Bloom joined forces with her three nephews and brother-in-law, Pat Lepsch, a 14-year participant, who said he has raised about $15,000 for Roswell in his last nine rides.

"The first time it was for exercise," Lepsch said. "But now, I've taken it to heart. There's so many people that need help and seeing so many dying so young, unfortunately. I'd like to see people live longer."

e-mail: krobinson@buffnews.com