In 2005, Jeff Keith, a cancer survivor from Fairfield, co-founded Connecticut Challenge with the goal of helping cancer survivors live healthier, longer lives through sports. To that end, the Fairfield nonprofit agency has raised over $6 million for cancer research through an annual bike ride and other sporting events. It also works with 16 hospital-based survivor clinics in the state to help them bring better services to survivors.
In the fall, Keith plans on taking his agency's mission a step further with the opening of its own Center for Survivorship in the town's Southport section.
"We wanted to build something with the most impact for our survivors," Keith said during a recent interview as he pointed to one of the facility's 10 rooms. "I can tell people that room is providing hope."
Keith co-founded Connecticut Challenge with Jeff Ragland Jr., an entrepreneur from Westport who grew up in Fairfield. Bob Mazzone, a marketing professional from Darien, serves as the agency's chief operating officer.
Keith also founded Swim Across America and Swim Across the Sound, which, with Connecticut Challenge, have raised $50 million for cancer survivors over the past 20 years, according to Connecticut Challenge's website.
Prior to co-founding Connecticut Challenge, Keith raised $1 million for the American Cancer Society after college as the first amputee to run across the country.
The 7,800-square-foot venue at 250 Pequot Ave., a former radiology practice with no windows, has been transformed over the past nine months into an open floor plan comprised of two large, glass-walled studios, a personal training room, a spinning room and a support group room. The center, outfitted with many windows to let in sunlight, also has a kitchen for teaching nutrition, a library and men's and women's locker rooms with showers.
The studios, floored in bamboo, will be used for instruction in yoga, pilates and meditation with shades drawn down for privacy as well as for holding guest speaker programs and other events.
"A lot of hospitals don't have this," Keith said.
The facility is the nation's first center for survivorship, said Keith, an investment banker and philanthropist whose right leg was amputated above the knee at age 12 after being diagnosed with bone cancer.
It will provide classes for free to survivors who can provide diagnosis information and where they were treated, Keith said. A certain number of one-on-one sessions with a personal trainer and a nutritionist will also be offered for free, after which plans may be bought at a subsidized rate, said Tamara Deyle, program director.
"We will also be doing research here to collect data for survivorship issues to get reimbursement from insurance providers," she said.
It will also feature a meditation/healing garden with a mandala labyrinth, Deyle said.
"The focus is on the labyrinth -- one way in and one way out," she said. "That way, you're always moving forward in your journey."
So far, $750,000 has been put toward building the facility, which is expected to be completed by the end of this month with an additional $250,000, Keith said. Half of the money raised thus far has come from its annual bike ride held in late July, and a considerable amount has also come from donations, Keith said.
The agency is also pursuing a $100,000 grant from the state Department of Economic and Community Development to help pay for the center. In addition, the project's contractors have provided many of their services at reduced rates or for free, he said.
Annual operating costs, expected to reach $400,000 to pay for utilities, rent, insurance, administrative staff and instructors, is expected to be covered through the bike ride and donations, Keith said.
The center, which will also accommodate the agency's offices presently in downtown Fairfield, was designed to be energy efficient to help keep those costs down, he said.
"That's why we put in all of the windows and skylights," he said, adding that screens for the offices and energy-efficient lighting were also installed. "This way, air conditioning will not be needed on cooler days."
The new center should further Connecticut Challenge's ongoing mission to enhance the lives of the region's cancer survivors, of which there are 13.7 million nationwide, said Sara Williams, area director of health initiatives for the American Cancer Society.
"The services they are providing are very important," she said.
For information on the center, visit www.ctchallenge.org.
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