Monday, June 25 , 2018, 12:32 pm | Overcast 68º


Cruzin’ for Life Van Gives Lift to North County Cancer Patients

Having served 2,600 patients in first year, Mission Hope transport cruises into second with vital service

Finding a ride to Mission Hope Cancer Center in Santa Maria for treatment used to be a process that included bartering — something else for Sal Diaz to dread.

Although the 26-year-old lived just miles from the facility, which works in collaboration with Marian Regional Medical Center, family members weren’t always available to take or pick him up from four- to six-hour chemotherapy sessions for his blood disease.

His story is indicative of why volunteers at the nonprofit Cruzin’ for Life decided to start raising money to retrofit a transport van three years ago.

As one of Mission Hope’s first patients to hitch a free ride last year, Diaz can attest to its value.

“It’s pretty cool,” Diaz told Noozhawk. “You don’t have to be calling people and begging them. My mom is thankful.”

With a year on the road, the van has transported more than 2,600 cancer patients and logged more than 34,000 miles serving the areas of Guadalupe, Lompoc, Los Alamos, New Cuyama, Nipomo, Orcutt and Santa Maria.

Cruzin for Life, a Santa Maria-based 501(c)3 organization created in 2003 to raise funds for local cancer patients of all ages, continues raising money to operate the retrofitted van via its annual Valentine’s Day crab feed. The group is so-named for its annual three-day car show and cruise, which will be Sept. 21-23 this year.

Robert Bonilla, a member of the Cruzin’ for Life board of directors, said the king crab feed has grown from serving 650 pounds to 1,000, and last year brought in $32,000.

The idea for the van came about after a relative of one of the organization’s board members was diagnosed with cancer, Bonilla said.

“Nobody was there to help the people and assist them into their homes,” he said.

The group thought it would take several years to raise $69,000, but Santa Maria Energy president David Pratt provided a silent $36,000 donation. Cruzin’ for Life folks said they felt wrong keeping quiet, so they put the oil company’s name on the side of the van.

“They really didn’t want that recognition,” Bonilla said of Santa Maria Energy. “Here in Santa Maria, it’s a very good community center for helping.”

Mission Hope Cancer Center regional director Katherine Guthrie said the facility had no idea how much patients needed the service until Cruzin’ for Life helped provide it.

“We are full all the time,” Guthrie said. “We had no way of transporting them. We don’t want a patient to miss their treatment.”

Patients call the wheel-chair accessible van directly, or nurses and social workers recommend the service based on greatest need.

Van driver Chris Magana keeps blankets, ice packs, water bottles, snacks and more onboard so patients feel comfortable.

Guthrie is certain the van will be used for years to come, with Marian hospital diagnosing more than 700 new cancer cases each year and advancements in medical science allowing cancer patients better survival rates.

If the need and funding are there, Bonilla said, Cruzin’ for Life would also consider getting a second van.

Click here for more information about Cruzin’ for Life. Click here to make an online donation.

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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