Olivia snuggled with her dad while talking with the Moab Sun News. [Photo by Murice D. Miller / Moab Sun News]

Great Cycle Challenge USA began in 2015 and reports on its website that it has since raised more than $16 million in support of research to develop better treatments and to find a cure for childhood cancers “because 15,700 American children are diagnosed with cancer every year, and sadly, 38 children die every week.” 

Participants in Great Cycle Challenge USA set a target number of miles to ride by bicycle during the month of June as a personal cycling challenge to fight kids’ cancers. 

They then spread the word about their challenge and ask for donations, which can be made through his or her challenge page that is easily found on Great Cycle Challenge USA’s website. Those who wish to be riders may also sign up on the website.  

Moab resident Ken Ballantyne said he started participating in Great Cycle Challenge USA in 2016 and this year will be his fourth time biking for the fundraiser.

“If I could have a wish, there would be hundreds of riders in Moab,” he said.

Ballantyne has set a goal this year to raise $1,000 and ride 642 miles. Each year, Ballantyne dedicates his ride to one, or sometimes several, children who are receiving cancer treatment. In 2019, he is riding as part of Team Olivia in support of a very young member of the Moab community, Olivia Blackwelder.  

Olivia is 5 years old. She likes to do art with chalk, play outside and ride her bike, often with her 3-year-old brother, Henry. Her parents, Megan and Jake Blackwelder, told the Moab Sun News that Olivia enjoyed going to preschool, but isn’t attending right now due to the risks posed by bacteria and viruses often found in schools.

Olivia currently receives chemotherapy about once a week at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City as treatment for T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which she was diagnosed with in January. While this treatment is life-saving, it also makes her more susceptible to common germs.

“Some types of bacteria are really harmful for her, stuff that you and I have no trouble mitigating with our immune systems,” Jake said. “She has no defense against bacteria that live on our skin or in food.”

To minimize the risks for Olivia, her parents limit who comes to visit their house. No one who is sick or living with someone contagious may visit, nor anyone who is unvaccinated.

Once someone is in the house, shoes come off and hands get several pumps from the bottle of sanitizer kept at the entrance.

Basic hygiene, such as bathing and brushing teeth, are extra important for Olivia. Her family is very careful to keep themselves clean and healthy to reduce Olivia’s potential exposure.  

Henry has also had to stop going to preschool because of the risk of bringing home germs.

Jake said his professional background has helped him to provide care for his daughter.  He works full time as a flight paramedic for Classic Air Medical and has two part time jobs with the local Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and Grand County Search and Rescue.

“Just having a little bit of knowledge about disease process helps me help Olivia,” Jake said. “If I didn’t know anything about medicine, I think it would be a lot harder. I think about other families who have no idea what they’re getting into. It hasn’t been as hard for us.”

One example of how his medical background has made things a little bit easier: Olivia was able to have some chemotherapy treatment at home, and Jake already knew how to give intravenous medicine. Megan is now trained to do this as well.  

The plan is for Olivia to receive treatments almost every week through September, and then monthly treatments for another year after that. In all, the treatments will likely last a little over two years.

Megan said Great Cycling Challenge USA is important to raise money as well as awareness.

“It makes me feel like there is a ton of support out there that we didn’t realize,” she said, adding that it means a lot to her “to know there are people out there who are willing to do this for kids like Olivia.”

She also said the support they have received from family, friends and the community so far has been “overwhelming and awesome.”  

Since she and Jake have had to pull the kids from school, and both parents work full time (Megan is the Southeast Region Manager for the Utah State Parks), she said family members have come from out of town to help. She said asking for help was something they’d never had to do before and “a really big hurdle, but it’s made things easier.”

Jake added that one of the most important things people can do besides donating money is to donate blood.

“I’ve been amazed how much blood Olivia has needed through this process, and she is one of thousands,” he said.  

Jake said he hopes people in the community will turn out for the upcoming blood drive in Moab.

The St. Mary’s blood drive is happening at Moab Regional Hospital on Friday, May 3, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.  

During her interview with the Moab Sun News, Olivia took some time away from snuggling with her parents to share her Littlest Pet Shop toys.

She remarked, “The hospital is not fun,” then added that, “the Salt Lake one is a teeny bit fun, because they have toys.”

Megan said she is following her daughter’s example during this challenging time.  

“Focus on today,” she said. “That’s how Olivia does it.”

“If I could have a wish, there would be hundreds of riders in Moab.”

Moab man rides for Team Olivia in the Great Cycle Challenge USA

What: Great Cycle Challenge USA, Team Olivia

When: Now through June 30

Where: Online at greatcyclechallenge.com/Riders/KenBallantyne

Cost: By donation

Info: Contact Ken Ballantyne at 435-260-1896

What: St. Mary’s Blood Drive at Moab Regional Hospital

When: Friday, May 3, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Where: 450 Williams Way

Cost: Free

Info: Contact Moab Regional Hospital at 435-719-3500