One Man's Mission to Raise Money for Cancer by Surfing

PHOTO: Ralph Fatello surfing in the snow.PlayGabby Fatello
WATCH A Mother's Struggle to Save Her Son

Every single day, for nearly the last year, Ralph Fatello has climbed on his surfboard, and ridden a wave off the New Hampshire coast. Every single day. He has surfed through rain and snow and even a tornado warning.

Fatello isn't trying to get into the record books. Closing in on age 60, he's not trying to prove he can keep up with the teen surfers of his youth. He's not trying to win a bet. Fatello is on a mission to surf one wave every day for a year to raise money for financially-strapped families dealing with a child diagnosed with cancer.

It's all in memory of a 5-year-old Molly Rowlee, who was "just starting to surf," according to Fatello. In February of 2009, the little girl with the big smile complained of a stomach ache. She was soon diagnosed with lymphoma. "Molly made wonderful progress" after her initial chemotherapy treatment, according to her father Buck Rowlee. But the cancer soon returned, and five months after her diagnosis, Molly died.

It sent the tight knit surfing community in New Hampshire, "into a tail spin," said Fatello. Molly's parents set up the "Molly Rowlee Fund," at Boston's Dana-Farber/Children's Hospital Cancer Center, where Molly was treated. When Molly became ill, "friends just started dropping off contributions at the bank to help pay medical bills," said Buck. Luckily, the family had good health insurance, but the Rowlees saw many others at Dana Farber who were not so fortunate.

"We met children at Boston hospital who were so much worse off than we were," said Buck, Their families "were bankrupt or dealing with horrible bills."

The Molly Rowlee Fund, formally established just this past December, is designed to offer families "concrete support," according to the hospital, including money for rent, mortgages, transportation and food.

Molly Rowlee - photo by Heather O'Hara

As Buck Rowlee put it, "The families can use the money to help pay bills, or put gas in the tank, or food on the table."

In a written statement, Daisy Gomez, with Pediatric Psychosocial Services at Dana-Farber told ABC News the Fund " has helped nearly a dozen families who have been financially impacted by lengthy hospitalizations and out-of-pocket costs associated with their child's cancer."

Molly's parents have raised $20,000 for the Fund so far, and have pledged to raise another $80,000 dollars over the next five years. That's where Ralph Fatello comes in. He is determined to help. This is Fatello's second "surf-a-thon". A decade ago, he surfed every day for a year to raise money for the American Diabetes Association. It was in honor of his father, and the year-long effort brought in 33-thousand dollars. He admits this time, being a decade older, it's been a bit harder. "I started to work out, and lost 30 pounds," said Fatello. Then he took to his surfboard. His first day of the marathon effort was July 26th of last year, and he'll wrap it up July 26th, 2011, after 366 consecutive days on the water. That will be just past the two year anniversary of Molly's death.

Fatello old ABC News shortly after he started, "There are going to be times when I don't want to get out of bed and put on a wetsuit." Despite that, Fatello says as "God is my witness," I have been there every day. Fatello has his own standard for what counts as surfing a wave for Molly. "I have to ride the length of the board I am riding," he says, "In other words if I am riding a 9' board I have to go at least 9 feet. This is helpful on the really small (wave) days. Those are the hardest."

And as he has been trudging to the beach every single day over the past year, cancer struck even closer to home. His sister was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He has now catching a second wave each day for her.

New Hampshire is hardly Hawaii, and Ralph has had to contend with Hurricane Igor last September, a giant snowstorm in January which required four hours of shoveling to get out of his driveway and make his way to the beach, and my "absolutely coldest" day says Fatello. That was January 24th, when it was minus 8 degrees Fahrenheit. "It was so cold," says Fatello, "that when water hit my surfboard or wetsuit, it would freeze and turn to ice." Fatello even caught waves through a bout with the flu, and a surfboard accident that left him with 14 stitches on his forehead.

Ralph Fatello Surfs Off Coast of New Hampshire - photo by Ed O'Connell

But the graphic artist, writer and photographer is hardly complaining. He says the hardest day will be the day after he finishes his surfing epic. Fatello isn't sure how much money this effort will raise. Many of his donors have pledged a dollar-a-day, and they won't pay up until his effort his over. He hopes to bring it at least $20,000 dollars for what he calls his "catch a wave for Molly" fund raiser.

"And as I wind down this year long campaign, it seems almost surreal. The daily drive to the ocean. The putting on the summer wet suits, followed by the fall suits, and finally the dreaded winter wet suits", says Fatello. He's been chronicling his journey online here.

As for next year, "I'll be going somewhere tropical," laughed Fatello. But even has he does, he hopes the marathon of this past year will mean smoother sailing for families going through one of the most difficult times of their lives.