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Project Koru: The Organization and Heart-Driven Work Behind Kiteboard 4 Cancer

Hello friends of JDRE,

We are interrupting our normally scheduled Real Estate programming to talk to you about an organization, Project Koru, and their event this weekend, Kiteboard 4 Cancer. If you live in the Gorge, you’ve probably heard of the KB4C event, but not everyone knows about the organization behind the event, the work they are doing, and who they are supporting. We had an opportunity to sit down with a past Camp Koru participant and survivor, Jolina Ruckert, to hear about her first-hand experiences. We’re honored to be sharing her words with you here.

Jolina, originally from Florida, is an educator, a researcher, and a published author. She is currently a professor at Lewis and Clark college and holds a PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of Washington and a MA in Psychology from Pepperdine University. Her current research centers on the human relationship with the natural world, including conservation and sustainability, human-wildlife conflicts, and environmental moral thinking. In short – she’s incredible. Not to mention, extraordinarily kind and vibrant.

Jolina Ruckert

Jolina Ruckert: Survivor, Project Koru Past Participant (Camp #39) and Current Volunteer

Five years ago, after continually being dismissed by her healthcare providers and having to fight for a biopsy for over 7 months, Jolina was diagnosed with an extremely rare Angiosarcoma. She walked us through her experience with treatment, explaining “I was in my mid-30s when I found out I had cancer and a 15% chance of surviving. I went through treatment and actually felt pretty strong and powerful throughout it. It was really after treatment that it hit me how scary and likely my death was, and how I wasn’t ready. I got super depressed and didn’t want to leave my house. I worked, because I’m good at that, so it seemed as though I was OK. In reality, I wasn’t living life because I was so afraid of death.”

Jolina lives locally, in Hood River, and discovered Project Koru through someone in town. She said that as she learned about the opportunity she thought, “Wait, this can’t possibly be a real thing. You send people to Hawaii?” She soon signed up to be considered and was selected to go on a trip. Of the experience in Hawaii she says, “It was incredible to find a community of people who were like me, very young, some even younger than I, facing really high odds of not living the normal life that we all assumed was in store for us. Many of us were experiencing big changes in our body … you could have been running half marathons in recent years and now not even be able to walk up a hill. So there was a community around that shared trauma and hardship. We would come together at night around the fire to share in how sad, frustrating, or unfair it all was, but then we’d wake up in the mornings, eat delicious, love-filled meals and go surfing. We also got to share that enthusiasm and encouragement with one another. I remember one woman had lost her toes from skin cancer and she really struggled with her balance, and yet – there she was standing on the board! So we were finding a lot of empowerment through the community and through an ability to reconnect with our bodies that we felt had betrayed us and made us fearful. Being with so many other people who are going through cancer also helps you to realize you are not the only one holding something so heavy and if they can do it, and shine through it, it gives you strength to hold on too. There was a perspective shift, a widening of my scope.”

She said of her main takeaway from the trip, “I think it shifted me from being so afraid to die that I wasn’t living, to really living life again and appreciating life. I came back renewed, refreshed, shifted, and really ready to start the healing process that I’d thought was over – but really hadn’t even begun.”

Project Koru was founded in 2007 when Tonia Farman, who’s young brother passed away from cancer, and Garret Zallen, a pediatric surgeon, set out to convert their feelings of helplessness into passion, energy, and good using a sport they loved: kiteboarding. The result was Kiteboarding 4 Cancer, North America’s largest amateur kiteboarding event, designed to fundraise for partner cancer charities. Kiteboard 4 Cancer evolved into Project Koru as the co-founders explored how to support young adult cancer survivors by combining the healing power of community and the outdoors. Project Koru’s first survivorship program began in 2011 with the goal of helping survivors get their lives back after cancer.

Project Koru

Project Koru’s Cancer Camp #50, May 2022

When asked about what makes Project Koru different, Jolina shared that even though there are a lot of adventure-focused trips like this for cancer survivors now, “Project Koru is a smaller group, it’s more intimate and a much more heart-driven organization. They’ve kept a focus on not just the physical part of the trip, but also the emotional and the spiritual experience and healing. They are also focused on helping the people with the hardest situations.”

JDRE’s founder, Jen Dillard, is thrilled to be a returning sponsor and said, “I’ve been able to be a sponsor for KB4C the last few years and I have to say that this is my favorite Gorge event. I feel pulled to support the cause and I’m so honored to be contributing in an even bigger way this year. This is what it’s all about. I want to shout about Project Koru from the rooftops.”

Talking to Jolina, hearing her story and learning more about Project Koru was immensely inspirational to us. In today’s world, rife with devastating news stories and division, it’s easy to lose sight of how compassionate and loving people can be. Just a peek into Project Koru’s work reminds us that we can all contribute to revitalizing individuals, communities and a sense of hope. Jolina asked, “What does it all mean? We can have a lot of different answers to that. But I think we can all agree that life is meaningful because of people, connection, and community. When we can give, that creates one of the deepest shifts in our happiness and our sense of self. It’s a reciprocal positive relationship in a world that doesn’t have enough of it.”

Thank you, Jolina, for taking the time to talk with us and for the reminder to focus on what matters, be more giving and compassionate humans, and take stock of the moments and experiences that connect us all. KB4C is just one of these opportunities. We are honored to be a part of it and hope to see you all out in record numbers! Come by the Kiteboarding events on Saturday or Sunday and be sure to come party with us at the JDRE sponsored After Party at The Ruins on Saturday night, 7-10pm. $20 tickets available at the door or pre-purchase online.

After Party

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