Penn State student pedals heart-shaped route to fight cancer in memory of mom, friend

| Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, 1:36 a.m.

Some Penn State students help fight pediatric cancer every February by dancing in the university's IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, better known as THON.

But Penn State World Campus student Tyler Knabb of Reading doesn't feel much like dancing.

Instead, he's on the verge of completing an eight-day, 920-mile bicycle trek through Pennsylvania to raise money for a THON organization called The Hope Express.

The organization provides support for pediatric cancer patients at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center and their families.

Knabb's excursion brought him on Monday to the Penn State New Kensington campus, where faculty and THON student captains said they were inspired by his fundraising efforts.

After six days on the road, he's raised more than $4,400.

“My goal was $3,000, and I met it before I even left,” said Knabb, 24. “I think my story started gaining some momentum in the Penn State community, and donations just started pouring in.”

For Knabb, the fight against cancer is personal. His mother, Carol, died on his 14th birthday from a form of childhood cancer that's rarely found in adults.

He said the 10th anniversary of her death, combined with the loss of a childhood friend to leukemia in August, gave him the motivation to hop on the bike this year.

“I had been involved in THON before, but I thought it was time to step up and raise some real money on my own,” he said. “It hits you so hard when you lose people like that, but it's encouraging to see everything that Penn State does to combat that.”

Monday's stop at the Upper Burrell campus marked the eighth of 11 Penn State locations that Knabb plans to visit along the way.

He arrived there from Kittanning around 10 a.m. and spoke with faculty and THON captains for about an hour.

From there, he left for Uniontown, stopping first at the Greater Allegheny and Fayette campuses.

It accounted for about a 90-mile day and put him 250 miles from his final destination of Baltimore, where he began his journey on Oct. 22.

While Knabb is taking online courses in security risk analysis from Penn State, he's living temporarily in Baltimore as a full-time student at Johns Hopkins University. He's studying there to earn a bachelor's degree in cognitive neuroscience.

When he's not training for long-distance cycling excursions or working toward two college degrees, Knabb is serving in the Maryland National Guard.

“It sounds like a huge time commitment, but it's really not,” he said. “I spent more time planning the trip this month than I did in the service.”

The route that Knabb crafted from Baltimore was designed to allow as many campus visits as possible in an eight-day period.

It's coincidentally shaped like a crude, cartoon heart and runs through Pottsville, Wysox, Lockhaven, State College, Kittanning, Upper Burrell, Uniontown and Hagerstown, Md.

Knabb began training for the long-distance trip months ago by running or cycling three to four days each week.

He said he first started cycling seriously in high school to supplement his training for cross country and track and field, which he says is his first love.

That was evident in State College on Saturday when he spent his only scheduled day off to run a 5K race.

“It really got the soreness out,” he said. “The first 400 miles are pretty rough on the legs. It feels good to get off the bike once and then.”

Lauren Blum, Penn State New Kensington student life coordinator and faculty advisor to THON, said Knabb's resolve should inspire PSNK students to go the extra mile for the fundraising campaign.

“I think Tyler's excursion will definitely give our students here an extra boost,” she said. “How could you not be inspired by a guy who puts everything on the line like that?

“Especially when he doesn't have daily personal interaction with the Penn State community.”

The PSNK campus contributed $33,000 last year to the $12.37 million raised by the university as a whole. Despite having one of the smallest student populations among Penn State branch campuses, it ranked within the top five in fundraising for the fourth consecutive year, Blum said.

Contributing to those efforts was Michael Cavazza, a 20-year-old petroleum and natural gas engineering major and THON captain of family relations.

Cavazza said the THON team will follow Knabb's example in finding innovate ways to raise money.

“We are always looking for different ways to beat last year's total,” he said. “We need to think about doing something like this, which gets the community involved and appeals to a broader base of people. It's a great idea.”

Knabb's not yet satisfied with the thousands of dollars he raised on his bike.

He'll continue his fundraising in February when he runs a marathon from Hershey to State College — only to dance in another.

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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