By Mike Baker
Former Wilberforce resident Bob Thomas has had to live through every parent’s worst nightmare. Now, he’s using the pain and suffering brought on by the tragic loss of a child as fuel to push his province-wide ROCKRIDE fundraiser forward.
The ROCK, or Ride 4 Our Cancer Kids as it is otherwise known, is now entering its 18th year. The annual event raises money for Childhood Cancer Canada, which works with 17 children’s hospitals nationwide to help kids who have been diagnosed with cancer.
Since the ROCK’s inaugural event in 2004, it has raised more than $500,000.
As Thomas reflected on the overwhelming success of the ride in a recent interview with the Echo, he looked back on the tremendous loss that precipitated it.
“This ride is really a memorial for my daughter, Samantha. She passed away three days before her third birthday, on May 18, 2003,” Thomas said. “She was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic lymphoma in September 2002. She had a tumour the size of a grapefruit in her chest…”
After spending months visiting different hospitals – first Victoria Hospital in London, ON and, later, SickKids in Toronto – Thomas and his family, a wife and two other children, were given hope. After several rounds of chemotherapy, and a successful bone marrow transplant, in December 2002 it looked like Samantha was in the clear.
Then, with her immune system still recovering, she contracted a deadly respiratory syncytial virus [RSV]. Samantha was placed in a medically induced coma and put on a respirator. She would pass away a few days later.
Thomas remembers absolutely everything about that day. He and his wife were staying at the Ronald McDonald House close to SickKids when they got the emergency call at 4 a.m.
“My heart… I just remember sprinting over to the hospital, going up in the elevator. When we got there, there were lights flashing above Samantha’s room, and doctors and nurses running around… Four hours later, we were driving back home with an empty car seat,” Thomas said. “On that drive home, I was just thinking ‘why? Why is this happening? How can something like this happen?”
He continued, “I suppose that motivated me and inspired me to do something, to try and make a difference. I’ve been organizing these rides ever since.”
The first event, which took place in Sarnia, raised $13,000. A year later, that amount doubled to $26,000. Today, ROCKRIDE typically brings in anywhere between $35,000 and $40,000.
That’s particularly impressive when you consider that the ride, in typical years, takes place over the course of a single day and tends to draw around 100 participants. The event has evolved, and moved, over the years, with rides taking place in Sarnia, Cambridge and Niagara Falls.
The 2021 ride will be the first in over two years, with Thomas forced to cancel his 2020 event due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While it was touch and go for a while whether he would be able to host an event this year, he came up with a new format that not only ensured the ROCK would move forward, but allowed Thomas to return to his roots in the Highlands.
“I couldn’t plan for our normal event this year, because I didn’t want to be in a similar position to last year, when I had to cancel. So I came up with something a little different, something that hopefully means even more people will take part this year,” Thomas said.
This year, ROCKRIDE will take place in three different communities – Sarnia, Niagara Falls and Haliburton County. Rather than taking place on a single day, it will run for two months – from June 4 to July 26 – and will involve participants visiting different landmarks within their chosen community.
“We’re doing a ROCK tour this year. Rather than having everyone going out together in a large group, we’re encouraging individuals or families to go out on their own,” Thomas said. “We’ve identified different landmarks that people can take selfies in front of… It’s nice for us to open up the event to Haliburton [County], as all of the nice roads in Ontario are up there in the Highlands, and in cottage country. Having friends in the area, and with people always visiting, it made sense to us to launch a north region this year.”
Included on the list of local landmarks to visit is the tank out front of the Haliburton Legion on Mountain Street, and the plane and train located on the grounds of Haliburton Highlands Secondary School.
For every selfie an individual takes in front of a landmark [limited to one per landmark] they can fill out a ballot online to be in with a chance of winning a grand prize – $1,000 in gas cards. An additional ballot is given to registered riders for every $25 they raise in pledges.
Thomas hopes this year’s event will raise around $30,000. As of press time, he was more than half way there, with over $15,000 already brought in.
“I’m very proud of what we have been able to accomplish with the ROCK. To take something so negative, something that, frankly, almost took me out, and then use that as the fuel to power us to keep going and make something positive out of it, I’m very proud of that,” Thomas said. “My family and I have weathered this thing together. The ROCK is our mission. It’s our purpose.”
To learn more, or to register for the 2021 ROCKRIDE, visit www.rockride.com.