Tonia Farman didn’t come to the Columbia River Gorge for the wind. In 2003 she moved from urban Seattle to the sporty town of Hood River to take a marketing job that happened to be with a kiteboarding company. “I didn’t like the wind,” she says. “It was a real struggle at first.” In a region that draws kiteboarders and windsurfers from around the world for its summerlong thermals of 30-plus miles per hour, one can imagine the conflict.
Farman never thought she’d end up with a career in kiteboarding, nor did she dream she’d be feted in the national media as a hero for cancer survivors, but that’s how things turned out.
In that marketing job, Farman learned to kiteboard and even competed a bit. Eventually, she started her own kiteboarding school, Cascade Kiteboarding. Then in 2006, the unthinkable happened. Her brother Scott, also a great outdoors enthusiast, was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia. He passed away at the age of 19. Her brother’s death motivated Farman to get involved in fundraising for cancer survivors, and she decided she wanted to focus her efforts on teenagers and young adults. “We wanted to come up with an outlet for this age group.” She now runs a nonprofit called Athletes For Cancer, which raises money for and puts on outdoor camps for teenagers and young adults who have cancer.
Farman says she is inspired to action by the unique needs of this population. Young people take their health for granted and don’t expect to spend their teens or 20s fighting cancer. Like her brother, they are charging along with school, work and life. So by the time they get a diagnosis, they are often in the late stages of illness. And traditional cancer support groups tend to be geared toward older adults, who make up larger numbers.
At Athletes For Cancer adventure camps — where survivors learn to surf, stand-up paddle or kayak — they have a chance to connect with each other. Farman also believes they benefit from the healing forces of the natural world. She says the physical, mental and emotional challenges that come from learning a new sport help the participants gain a special kind of confidence and resilience, which can only help them in their fight for health and in life in general. “They leave with a completely different outlook,” she says. “Being active and being in the outdoors is healing for everyone.”
Her efforts have not gone unnoticed. In September 2012, Self magazine honored Farman with the “Women Doing Good Award” for her support of young cancer survivors. And the kiteboarding community of Oregon looks forward to the annual fund raiser, which brings so many people together in support of Farman’s mission.
Look for Tonia Farman at Athletes For Cancer events around Oregon, including the Kiteboarding For Cancer event, July 12-14, 2019, or out on the water in Hood River.