Step by step, cup by cup: Honoring young cancer fighters

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Steve Sodergren didn't set out to run a marathon in every state.

"In 2004, I ran Chicago and it was just, I thought, a one-time bucket list, I'll check it off, that's it, I've done it," he said. "I just kept doing it and it kind of took a life of its own."

Still, the Topeka man didn't find his purpose for it until 30 marathons in. A training run took him past the home of 15-year-old Morgan Kottman, who was battling brain cancer.

"I just thought about the struggles she was going through and I realized all the houses that I had run past that had people I knew who had been dealt the hand of cancer and I just decided that I would dedicate every day a run to someone who was affected by cancer," he said.

Steve launched Running4. Before her death, Morgan was the first to sign the shirt he now wears on race day. Among others he's met along the way was Rachel Howland.

"She was kind and loving and she always saw the good in everybody and she always saw the positive in everything," Rachel's mom Mindy recalls.

Rachel passed away in February 2018, weeks shy of her 8th birthday - and before she could set up her own Alex's Lemonade Stand. During treatments at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Rachel learned the story of the little girl raising money to cure cancer, one cup at a time. The Foundation proved vital to Rachel's family.

"They helped us with transportation to Philly and back, and they helped us with our hotel room - we were in hotel rooms for up to six weeks at a time," she said.

Now, the Howlands will pay it forward with a lemonade stand in Rachel's memory.

"One in 285 kids will get cancer before the age of 20, and that's a horrible number. And only 3.8 percent of the National Cancer Institute funding - that's funded by the federal government - is for childhood cancer," Mindy says, reciting statistics hitting far too close to home. "There are 100 different types and subtypes of childhood cancer. That's a lot of cancer for such a little amount of money."

Mindy says the lemonade stand is a first step in finding purpose in Rachel's passing - just as Rachel and all the others put purpose in Steve's steps as he nears the finish line of his 50 state journey in New York City this fall.

"Anything of importance to that child or that family, he does not forget. He puts on those tennis shoes, and he runs and he runs and he runs," Mindy said.

And if his steps ever falter, he need only look down.

"There are people who are carrying me," Steve said. "Their motivation and inspiration can help all of use whatever talent we have to make a difference."

The Alex's Lemonade Stand in Rachel's memory is 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, May 17, outside Patio Pool & Fireside in Westboro Mart, SW Huntoon and Oakley in Topeka. They'll take donations for lemonade and sweets from Josey's Baking.

Mindy's employer, IRET Properties (which include Crown Colony and Villa West apartments) is giving its workers the day off to volunteer.

You can follow Steve's journey, including his daily run dedications and his efforts for St. Jude's Children's Hospital, at the Running4 page on Facebook.