For TotalBank President and Chief Executive Officer Luis de la Aguilera, the news of Miami Fire Firefighter Rafael Garcia dying from a brain tumor at age 28 was shocking and personal.
“He was a healthy guy,” said de la Aguilera, who was related by marriage to the late firefighter. “He was taken to the hospital and diagnosed with brain cancer. He passed away in about nine days. His wife Maeghan was pregnant.”
Maeghan Garcia gave birth to son Mason Ralf on May 10.
Rafael Garcia won’t be forgotten. De la Aguilera and 11 others who are part of the Castaways Against Cancer group will remember him by paddling on kayaks for 160 miles in his honor, to raise money for the American Cancer Society.
The 16th annual journey from Virginia Key to Key West is dubbed the “East of Midnight Tour.” This year, the Castaways will have company: a group representing the Miami Fire Fighters Benevolent Association will paddle the first leg of the tour. The group takes off June 6 and will arrive June 12 at Higgs Beach in Key West.
The Castaways Against Cancer was founded by Christopher Columbus High School social studies teacher Steve O’Brien. Garcia was a Columbus High alumni, as are de la Aguilera and O’Brien.
O’Brien recalls teaching Garcia. He said he is still shocked by his passing, but is honored to be dedicating this year’s trip to the late firefighter.
“Ralph was a model student,” he said. “He was one of our aces.”
O’Brien started the group after losing family members to cancer. He, too, has also had cancer.
De la Aguilera, who practices kayaking year-round, was introduced to O’Brien when he was invited to teach a finance class at Columbus four years ago.
“It has become a signature fundraiser for TotalBank,” he said. “Last year, we were the top raising team for the American Cancer Society in Florida.”
The team raised $135,000. De la Aguilera said the team’s mission is to top last year’s total. The journey is long but well worth it. The group paddles for about 12 hours a day, plus rest stops. Once they arrive in Key West, they host a ceremony where they remember those with cancer and who have died from it.
O’Brien says Garcia will be in his thoughts throughout the journey.
“The sad part is that when my mom was diagnosed, I had four years to prepare and there was hope,” he said. “But for Ralph it was a short period of time. I am numb from the thing. He was strong and young. I thought he would pull through.”
To contribute, visit http://www.castawaysagainstcancer.com/.