Craig Potter, of Stafford Township, is riding his bike 4,000 miles across the U.S. to raise money for Ocean of Love, a Toms River charity that helps Ocean County families facing pediatric cancer. But he's also fulfilling a promise he made to his late wife Donna, who died of colon cancer in 2009.
"Back in 1998 I rode my bike from Manahawkin to Florida for Ocean of Love. My wife and three kids - who were 12, 10 and 8 at the time - followed in our van. We raised about $17,000," Potter said. "We were going to do (a cross-country trip) in September 2001, but she got diagnosed, and battled very hard through a lot of surgeries and treatments."
The 52-year-old had promised Donna he would do that transcontinental trip, and now is the time, he said. Potter has dubbed the effort "Keep the Wheels of Hope Turning," and has a goal of raising $25,000. He'll fly out to the West Coast on May 22, and hopes to bike into Ship Bottom by July 20.
Ocean of Love is a non-profit organization that provides financial and emotional assistance to Ocean County families dealing with pediatric cancers. Its goal is that children with the disease experience the "normal" joys of childhood, and it has helped 400 families since its start in 1988, its web site says.
Executive Director Linda Gillick, 63, of Toms River, said Ocean of Love has a budget of almost $800,000 a year, with just four percent going to administration. The rest goes to benefit families facing childhood cancer.
"The best example of what we do, relates to the price of gas," Gillick said. "We put out between $200,000 to $250,000 in Wawa gas cards a year .... for families that have to get children back and forth for treatment."
She said the Frito Lay Company contacted her recently and offered to donate 75 new Huffy children's bikes to Ocean of Love, which its employees are putting together in early May. So the first 75 people who donate $100 to Potter's effort can get a free bike. If they prefer, they can donate it back to be used by one of the agency's client families, or for future fund raisers.
"It was so ironic we got the call (just before Potter's trip was set to start)," she said. "It's a wonderful sign for Craig to know everybody is on his side."
Potter, a retired State Police officer, started training for the trip last Fall. He had been riding about 65 miles, three days a week, and recently increased his training to four or five days a week, he said. In May he'll be up to six days a week, riding up to 200 miles at a time.
He's a self-described gym rat, and works out at the Ocean Club in Manahawkin. But as fit as he is, the Rocky Mountains will be a challenge.
"It's hard to prepare (in New Jersey) because it's so flat," he said. "When I come across the Continental Divide in the Rockies in Colorado, I'll be at 7,000 to 8,000 feet. I'm hoping by that the time I get to that area, I'll be ready to handle it."
He'll start in Seaside, Oregon, a small coastal town that is the starting point for many people who do cross-country travel on bicycles, he said. When he gets to Yorktown, Va., he will have completed the transcontinental trip. Then he will ride in the van to the Cape May Ferry in Lewes, Del., and bike from Cape May to Ship Bottom, he said.
Gillick, whose 33-year-old son Michael has been battling neuroblastoma since he was three months old, said most families from Ocean County travel to Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center in New Brunswick, Sloan Kettering in New York City, or Children's Hospital in Philadelphia for treatment, often many times a week. Travel to New York City can cost upwards of $100 a day, she said, including tolls, parking and gas.
In addition to travel expenses, she said her agency helps pay household bills, food bills, and for things like car repair. Two or three times a year it pays for funerals, she said. The only thing it does not help cover is medical bills.
The agency also does fun things, like arrange parties and for children to be 'adopted' for gifts at holiday time, she said.
Gillick is grateful that Potter is willing to go through such an incredible physical ordeal to help Ocean County children, and said it shows he's continuing the State Trooper tradition.
"People have no idea what terrain and heat he'll be going through, and the amount of stress on his body. He's still ready to protect and serve, and put his life on the line to do it," she said.
Potter is getting help in publicizing his efforts from his three children, Jon, 25, a Ship Bottom police officer; Marc, 23, a Bay Head Borough Class 2 officer; and Katie, 21, a Rowan University student. Katie recently helped him organize a fundraiser at Friday's in Turnersville that raised $3,000, he said.
Potter retired from the State Police in 2011 and has been doing some substitute teaching, working security jobs, and working as an instructor for the State Police. He'll give some thought to what he wants to do next professionally, after he fulfills this promise, he said.
Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:
To support Craig Potter's cross-country trip, visit
www.ocean-of-love.org/ and click on "Support Craig's Charity Bike Ride." Follow his training and trip on his Facebook page, called "Craigs Charity Bike Ride Across America."