Last year, Flatwater’s Dam That Cancer kicked off with those words (play audio above). “Share a story, hear a story” keeps playing in my mind thinking back 10 years ago in 2013 as I began paddling the 21 miles on Lake Austin from Mansfield Dam to Tom Miller Dam. The overwhelming sense of community that was felt on every stroke during the 10 hour journey was visceral.
Why do so many of us feel such a connection to the cause? The American Cancer Society estimates, in the US, 41% of men and 39% of women will develop cancer during their lifetime. Those are intimidating numbers. With such high percentages, it’s likely, you, or someone you are very close to, is directly affected by the disease. Flatwater’s mission is to provide “mental health therapy in the wake of cancer” and, as of this year, has raised $6.3 million, provided over $8 million of value of care and 60,500 therapy sessions. The positive impact Flatwater has had on the community is hard to put into words but the numbers speak for themselves.
Dam That Cancer, Flatwater Foundation’s premiere fundraising event, will take place on Monday, September 11, 2023 where 230 paddlers will come together to embark on a difficult, but rewarding journey down Lake Austin. They will share their stories of loved ones, listen to others, and quiet the ripples in their mind as they reflect on all of the wonderful memories of the people closest to their heart who have experienced a cancer diagnosis.
If you would like to make a donation in honor of a family member or friend, please visit TylersDTC.com or FlatwaterFoundation.org. You may also sign up as a volunteer for this year’s paddle by clicking here.
I caught up with Senior VP, Chelsea Hardee, about the upcoming paddle.
What makes Dam That Cancer special? (was thinking of the participants cathartic experience of doing something difficult in honor of family or loved one as opposed to other premier events like a gala)
As many of us have personally experienced, dealing with cancer or supporting a cancer patient often engenders a profound sense of helplessness. Dam That Cancer stands out as a means for individuals to actively counteract this feeling and generate immediate impact. By applying to paddle, hitting the fundraising minimum, dedicating time to training and ultimately paddling 21-miles, our participants effectively contribute to improving the life of someone battling cancer. This proactive engagement not only provides a sense of control but also serves as a constructive outlet for their energy and empathy.
How difficult is paddling 21 miles over 10 hours?
We have a wide-range of abilities that join us. For some, the day is somewhat challenging but if they paddled it on their own they could complete the 21 miles in half the time. For others who are less experienced paddlers, the day is a very long hard one, especially if the winds are not in our favor. Weather plays a very large role in the difficulty of the day. We’ve had years where people are ending the day in good spirits with a little extra energy and we’ve had other years where everyone is crying the last few miles and can’t wait to get off the water.
What have you learned about Dam That Cancer after 13 years since it’s inception?
The Dam That Cancer community is a special one. The communal aspect of this event has grown organically—it wasn’t initially designed with the goal of fostering such a large and enthusiastic community, yet that’s exactly what has happened. Anticipation builds among our paddlers for the “DTC season,” as it offers a cherished opportunity for them to reconnect. Many of our participants have become lifelong friends – we even have a few that have met through DTC and gone on to get married and have kids!
How many paddlers participate each year?
With only a limited number of paddlers, how do you choose them among the hundreds of applicants?
Choosing the paddlers each year is the most challenging part of my job! Each year I am still in awe that we are not begging people to sign up and we actually have to turn people away to paddle 21 miles in the Texas heat. In our paddler applications we look for people that are passionate about the Flatwater mission and the impact they will have on Central Texans impacted by cancer more so than the athletic endeavor. In all honesty, we care very little about one’s paddle ability – it’s all about their motivation. If you are motivated, you’ll raise the funds and find a way to paddle the 21 miles.
How long does it take to plan an event like this?
From upcoming event creative updates to the paddle day, the event takes around 8 months to plan. Then there’s three weeks of closing out the event, a few months off from DTC and we do it all over again the next year!
We want a behind the scenes look – describe the day of the event from wake up to set up, start to finish, then party at Hula Hut.
Our incredible volunteers arrive at Mansfield Dam (the paddle start) at 5AM to unload and prep the SUPs. While they are doing so, our paddlers are loading on buses from the paddle finish (Hula Hut) and heading to Mansfield Dam. We aim to start paddling by 7:15AM. From there, we stop and start along the route like an accordion – allowing those that fall behind to catch up at the stopping points. Dam That Cancer is NOT a race. We paddle down the lake together. The only official stop is our lunch at a private residence on Lake Austin. There we will break for 30 minutes to an hour depending on the conditions. After that, we hop on the water and make our way toward Hula Hut with the goal to finish at Hula Hut by 5:30 PM. Our paddlers load off the water then walk to our post-paddle party at the LCRA Redbud Center. The party takes place from 6-8 PM and is a chance for us to thank our paddlers and supporters that make the event possible. The party is free and open to the public. It’s a long fulfilling day!
Flatwater has raised $6.3M, provided over $8M of value of care surpassing 60k sessions of therapy provided and placed nearly 2800 individuals and families into care. What does it mean to you when you hear those numbers?
I am extremely proud of this organization and our thousands of supporters that have made these numbers possible. We are a small organization in terms of full-time staff but a large one when you take into consideration our community of supporters. This has been a true grassroots effort that has changed thousands of lives.
How have the stories of individuals and families impacted you over the years?
There have been many heartbreaking stories over the years but with that, there are also stories of courage, community and resilience. This line of work has taught me to be thankful for my health, never take a moment for granted and to believe in the power of community.
How has the perception of mental health changed since 2010 when Flatwater was founded?
There’s been a dramatic shift in the comfort levels of people talking about seeing a therapist and acknowledging the importance of one’s mental health. It’s wonderful to see the adoption of this because it is so important. If you are not mentally in a good place it does not matter what else is going right in your life, you will struggle. We believe seeing a therapist and having the tools to navigate the ebbs and flows of life is crucial to living a balanced existence.
What is the process for someone to get placed into care through Flatwater?
Anyone interested in learning more about our services can contact email@example.com.
Flatwater has continued to grow and provide more care every year. What are Flatwater’s plans for the future?
We currently provide care in Central Texas with plans to continue expanding throughout the state. The need for care is not slowing down. The more money we can raise, the more areas we can expand to and care we can provide!
There is no doubt, Flatwater is making waves in the local community and beyond. I’m excited for the future of this organization and the lasting impact it will have. On a more personal note, I’m incredibly proud of the individuals who have built Flatwater into what it is today as I have been lucky enough to know them as close friends and I love them dearly.