Ride for Rising Sun: East Lyme's Mirecki, now cancer free, giving back to camp which helped shape him
East Lyme — On Sunday, Jay Mirecki will ride his bike from the parking lot at Boats Inc., in Niantic, past the Niantic Community Church, with the ultimate destination of Camp Rising Sun in Colebrook, a town located all the way in the Northwest corner of the state.
Mirecki, 19, will follow a path throughout Connecticut which takes him 160 kilometers (about 100 miles), bringing together all the pieces of a lifetime.
He is a cancer survivor, diagnosed 16 years ago when he was 3 years old. A 2016 East Lyme High School graduate getting ready to enter his sophomore year at Tufts University outside of Boston, Mirecki set out to respectfully celebrate those 16 years, now cancer free.
He raised $16,000 (and more) to donate to Camp Rising Sun, a place which was a haven for him growing up, where children actively fighting cancer and those who have beaten it can sing and dance, play laser tag and climb a rock wall. At Camp Rising Sun, Mirecki remembers, cancer doesn’t really come up too much in conversation; there are just kids busy being kids.
He will ride 160K to get there, to present a check for $16K. The cost for a camper to attend for one summer is $1,500, he said, and there is no cost to the participants.
Mirecki will give back to a place which still means so much to him.
“The first year I went to Camp Rising Sun is when I was 5. There were a lot of patients of my oncologist. Kids in treatment can go, too; you see other kids who have the same thing. I went through the summer of seventh grade,” Mirecki said.
“This will be my first year going back to the camp. It’s really exciting. You have a ton of great kids. You’re with the same kids year after year. I kind of miss that. It’s so much fun there. No one is different because everyone there has had cancer.”
The $16,000 has come from a variety of sources, including numerous donations via the Web site CrowdRise, which allows its contributions to be tax deductible.
Boats Inc., a marina and boat dealer on Niantic’s Main Street, presented Mirecki with a check for $6,875 at the organization’s annual “One Tide Challenge” and dock party Saturday, after president and co-owner Don MacKenzie spearheaded a boat raffle as a benefit. The winners of the 13-foot Boston Whaler, East Lyme's John and Leanne Santos and their family, immediately added another $1,500 to Mirecki’s total.
His church family contributed generously.
Mirecki remained in awe as the numbers ping-ponged upward in support of what has become his own personal journey; the total reached $21,584 as of Wednesday.
“It’s definitely been emotional,” said Mirecki, wearing a T-shirt with a Camp Rising Sun logo and seated near the East Lyme High track and field complex, where he once competed as a standout in the 800 meters. “There are times I lie awake at night thinking what I went through and how much this means to me.”
Mirecki will complete the ride with three other people: his dad, Frank Mirecki, a cardiologist at Backus Hospital in Norwich; family friend Mark Fiengo, also a cardiologist; and Ryan Deschenes, a former classmate of Jay Mirecki’s at East Lyme High and now a student at the University of New Hampshire. Mirecki said he’s been asked why not expand the ride to include the public.
“Yes, it’s a fundraiser, but it’s also kind of a personal endeavor for me,” Mirecki said. “For me, this is like my, ‘Cancer didn’t win,’ moment. I want this personal journey.”
Jarett, “Jay” Mirecki, who has two older sisters, Brianne and Marissa, calls himself the family’s “problem child.” Of Frank and Mary Mirecki’s three children, Jay is the one who when he was 9, would fracture his skull sledding while on a family trip and have to be airlifted to Hershey (Pa.) Medical Center.
First, on Aug. 15, 2001, Mirecki was diagnosed with Wilms tumor, a type of kidney cancer which primarily affects children. Two days later, he underwent surgery to remove the cancerous kidney at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital and, as part of his treatment, endured chemotherapy.
“I remember some things. I don’t remember very many bad things,” Mirecki said. “I remember my dad in scrubs to walk me into the operating room. I remember watching cars out the window of the hospital. I’m reading my mom’s diary from the time I was in the hospital to see how things happened in her eyes. … She was pretty taken aback by it.
“I’ve been thinking about it so much. This ride has piqued my interest more. It feels good to explore that time.”
The idea for the fundraiser came quite by accident. Returning to Tufts after Thanksgiving last year, Mirecki received a letter from the American Cancer Society thanking him for his support. Only Mirecki never donated to the American Cancer Society or any other cancer-based charity. It made him think, “Why not?”
“It made me realize I had not given back,” said Mirecki, although he has been on several mission trips with his church. “I felt like I had a responsibility to give back. … I contacted my family friend Deb Fountain; she has a lot of experience (in fundraising). I said, ‘How about $1,600?’ She said, ‘Not enough … think bigger.’
“It gives me goosebumps. I don’t think it’s quite hit me yet. … I made an announcement at church and in two Sundays I raised over $2,000. Like, ‘Huh. Maybe we can actually raise $16,000.'”
Don MacKenzie attended high school in Augusta, Maine, where one of his best friends was a guy named Norm Elvin.
MacKenzie calls Elvin “one of the most benevolent people I’ve ever known.” Once, with his mother undergoing hospice care for cancer, Elvin decided to offer his services putting together hospice beds for those in need. He has since expanded his vision to raise money for hospitals and schools. Once on a visit home, MacKenzie tells how Elvin “quietly motivated me.”
Now, one of MacKenzie's favorite principles is the “five-penny challenge.” Every day, he keeps five pennies in his pocket. For each act of kindness he generates, he moves one penny to the other pocket.
MacKenzie has been the recipient of the Connecticut Sports Writers' Alliance John Wentworth Good Sport Award and was named the Southeastern Connecticut Chapter of the National Football Foundation 2014 Person of the Year. He has done everything at Ledyard High School from coach basketball to announce at football games to donate goal posts.
It was Fountain, colleagues with MacKenzie through a charitable organization called The Power of Together, who introduced him to Jay Mirecki.
“He was completely straight-faced,” Mirecki said of meeting MacKenzie. “I thought, 'This guy is not impressed.' He told me that he was. I was like, 'Huh.'”
“My first impression was 'it's all coming from the heart,'” said MacKenzie, who completely sold out of the 300 raffle tickets he had printed for purchase by Boats Inc., customers only. “He really wants to do this. From what he told me, he's willing. This is all from his heart.”
Mirecki will begin his ride Sunday from Boats Inc. He also has sponsors in Berkshire Hathaway of Niantic, where Fountain is a realtor, and Niantic Bay Bicycles, which lent Deschenes his bike for the upcoming ride. The orange shirts with the “Ride for Rising Sun” logo were provided by Coastal Crab, an apparel company co-owned by East Lyme High teacher and girls' soccer coach Rachel Redding.
Mirecki's track coach and East Lyme High athletic director Steve Hargis hadn't heard of Mirecki's quest, nor was he surprised to hear about it this week.
“Absolutely, he's very understated. He's never been a 'look-at-me' kind of kid,” Hargis said. “I'm not surprised. They're the best kids ever, just a great group. That's what made that group pretty special. It was an easy team to manage. That's fantastic. It really is. Very cool.”
Because Mirecki grew up with one kidney, he wasn't allowed to play contact sports. The Jay Mirecki of today is making up for that as a member of the Quidditch team at Tufts.
An avid reader of the Harry Potter book series, Mirecki plays the real-life version of the sport introduced by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, which he describes as a combination of hand ball, dodge ball and hockey (he wears a kidney pad for protection). In lieu of actually flying on brooms, as they do in the fantasy books, the Quidditch players run while “riding” a section of one-inch PVC pipe. Tufts, with Mirecki on the roster as a chaser, qualified for the 2017 national tournament in Orlando, Fla.
Mirecki is planning to double major in computer science and biology, possibly something to do with cancer research.
He receives checkups once per year at the Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale.
“I've been training to make sure I'm in shape for this,” Mirecki said of the bike ride. “(Last Thursday), I biked the last 25 miles of the route. I've biked most of the route in different segments. I'm excited. I'm pretty sure I'm going to finish it, but I'm not sure how long it's going to take. We have a couple rest stops.”
Mary Mirecki will drive the support truck along side her son. The contingent will be transported by truck a few miles from the Hartford area to Canton to avoid traffic. When Mirecki gets back on his bike at that juncture, he knows that will be the hardest part of the trek.
“I'm going to want to take a nap,” he said with a laugh.
But it's also the portion of the trip that will lead him to Camp Rising Sun. It is a place that will always be special to him, that helped shape him, that he will pridefully present a check for more than $21,000.
It is a ride he started by wanting to give back. And Jay Mirecki will finish it by moving pennies.
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