The skinny 22-year-old man with a thick tuft of brown hair sitting at the kitchen table and the photo of the bald, sallow 9-year-old boy, his cheeks severely swollen, share only one obvious similarity.
The same broad smile.
When Len Forkas's calves were pulsating, his back tightening, his head pounding, his lungs gasping for oxygen, he thought often of both the boy in the photo and the man that boy has become. But throughout the 3,000-mile Race across America he completed in 2012, he also drew inspiration from the roughly 14,000 other children who, like his son Matt a decade earlier, are diagnosed with cancer every year. Len, Kogod/MBA '89, rode his Trek Madone 5.9 bike from the Pacific Ocean to the Chesapeake Bay to raise money for Hopecam, a charity born from his son's battle for life.
On a mild December day that seems too warm for the wire polar bears and other holiday decorations on the front lawn of the family's Vienna, Virginia, home, father and son sit next to each another, recounting the darkest days of their lives and the blessings those trials ultimately brought.
"Everybody gets tested in their lives, and it comes in different forms," Len says. "The question is, when it happens to you, what do you do? Fortunately, as a family, we didn't look at ourselves as victims. We fought it. We turned a negative into a positive by focusing on ways that we could help other people going through the same thing we went through."
Matt is home for winter break from Stetson University in Florida, where he's majoring in business and digital arts. He's a bit more laid back than his telecommunications entrepreneur, marathon-running, bike-racing, 55-year-old father, but the two did team up to summit Mount Kilimanjaro last summer to raise $25,000 for Hopecam. Matt bears almost no resemblance to that sickly kid in the photo, whom he hardly recognizes anymore.
"It's not like I'm happy that I got [cancer], but I don't think I'd be who I am today without getting sick," he says quietly. "It matured me very quickly. Faced with death so young kind of sped up that process. It gave me a lot more to be grateful for. It made me a lot more grounded. It's so long ago that it almost seems like it didn't happen, but at the same time, I have so many things to show that it did happen. Like Hopecam."
The phone rang in Len Forkas's office at 10 a.m. on January 18, 2002. He remembers the date and time precisely.
"Can we wait until after school?" Len asked the physician on the other line, who was unmistakably concerned about Matt.
"No, he's got to come in right now." The urgency in the doctor's voice was alarming.
For the first eight years of his life, Matt Forkas was a healthy, normal boy. He loved to play basketball with his friends, but he began getting curiously short of breath during games. Doctors struggled to pinpoint the problem. One diagnosed whooping cough, which his parents, Len and Elizabeth, found odd. Who gets whooping cough anymore? He missed numerous days of school with headaches and generally felt under the weather.
During a family vacation his color turned yellowish, so his parents took him to the doctor for blood work when they returned home. After dropping him off at school, Len was now being told to bring him back. Immediately.
"That's when they told us he had leukemia," Len says. "Nothing prepares you for that, and I had to explain it to him. I said, 'We think you have cancer. Cancer is something we can fight, and we can win it. I'm going to be with you the whole way.'"
They drove to Inova Children's Hospital in Falls Church, Virginia, parked in the garage, then walked across a skybridge toward the building.
"It's five o'clock, it's dark and cold," Len says as if he's describing yesterday, not a Friday more than a dozen years ago. "I look down and Matthew is holding in his hand a statue of St. Matthew that my mom gave him when he had his first communion. That's the moment he asks me if he is going to die. It's almost like our old life is over here on this parking deck, and the new world is behind these big steel doors, and it feels like we're going through this tunnel. You don't know how far it goes or how long it's going to go, and you can't see past."
That was the first day.
Matt's chemo treatments for acute lymphoblastic leukemia were extremely intense. His thigh was injected with vincristine, and he received methotrexate, which caused painful sores in his mouth. He took steroids to shrink the swelling of his cells, but that caused his face to puff up. Because doctors were trying to kill as many of his cancerous white blood cells as possible, he was at high risk for contracting pneumonia, and he was homebound for the rest of the school year.
The nine-year-old boy began losing his hair, as if he were 49.
Seeing his son virtually bedridden and depressed tore at Len. He was determined to reunite Matt with his friends, even if they couldn't physically interact. So he decided to equip computers in Matt's bedroom and fourth-grade classroom with cameras, and connect the two. In 2002, eons before Skype or FaceTime, this was no easy task. He contacted the Fairfax County School System's head of technology, who helped him figure out answers to his myriad questions. What software could be used? How could they test it? Was it even legal to put a camera in a classroom?
"The hardest part was to create a sense of urgency to make this happen, because the clock was ticking," Len says. "Every single day I came home and saw Matt and how tough it was for him. School was going to be over in June, so I was really trying to get this done quickly. In the end it took us eight weeks. All the roadblocks that got thrown in front of us, we picked them off one at a time."
Using Microsoft's NetMeeting software, Matt was able to see his classroom and talk to his friends every morning and after recess.
"Seeing everyone smiling and waving made me feel like I was there," Matt says. "It almost made me forget that I was undergoing all those treatments. Everyone looked at me like it was me. They weren't scared."
Len believes it was a transformative experience for all involved.
"He didn't even recognize himself, but those 24 kids in the classroom could see him and they knew it was Matt," Len says. "They reminded him that he hadn't been forgotten and you're coming back. Your desk is still there waiting for you. The unintended consequence of this was we demystified what cancer was for the 24 kids, and we taught them empathy and how valuable it is to stay connected to your friends."
When Matt returned to school in the fall, some of his buddies rubbed his head for good luck.
"When I saw how easy it was for him to transition back to school, that's when I realized the value of it. Those kids understood what he went through, he didn't have to explain it to anybody. They saw it. That to me was the magic of what we stumbled on. I'd gone through all the red tape and cut through all the bureaucracy, and I can't even imagine what another parent would have to go through trying to do what I did. That's when I realized I've got to find a way to help more kids."
In the early 2000s, laptops ran about $1,000 and Internet connections were far from ubiquitous. Len knew that to provide other sick kids with the connectivity that benefitted his son, he'd have to raise money. Fast.
So he started running.
"When Matt was born, I ran the Marine Corps Marathon," he says. "I promised I would never do another one of those. But I started running more and biking more to cope with the stress of his illness. I ended up doing the Marine Corps again, then I signed up for a 50-mile ultramarathon, and I raised five grand. I bought five computers, I went to a clinic, and we found five kids to help. The next year I raised 10 grand. Every year I raised more money to help more kids."
Hopecam was officially born in 2003, and its growth has been powered by Len's grit and determination. He completed an Ironman triathlon, which raised $30,000 for the charity, enabling him to hire a part-time director. Next was a 400-mile, 24-hour bike race in Florida, which raised enough money to make that director full-time. By 2012 Matt had been declared cancer-free, and Hopecam was helping dozens of kids throughout the mid-Atlantic.
The organization provides kids with a tablet computer equipped with a webcam, and Internet access if needed, then works with schools to establish a regular connection, enabling housebound children to participate in classroom activities and interact with friends.
"We are the ombudsman for the parents," Len says. "Lots of charities can give you an iPad with Skype, but to be able to connect to the school and cut through the red tape, that's the real differentiator."
A few years ago, Len, who Matt says sleeps four hours a night and takes 10-minute catnaps that completely reenergize him, had an itch.
He wanted to take Hopecam to the next level, so he recruited a crew of 11 volunteers to help him compete in—and complete—the Race across America. Only half the entrants in the race from Oceanside, California, to Annapolis, Maryland, generally finish it, but Len had a motivation the others did not: Hopecam.
Sleeping for two-hour clips and subsisting on a largely liquid diet, he finished the race in 11 days, 4 hours, and 47 minutes. He was one of just 28 of the 45 solo competitors to finish the race. Of those 28, Len placed first in his age group (50-59) and 10th overall.
In What Spins the Wheel, the book he wrote about the business and leadership lessons he learned from the race (he's founder and CEO of Milestone Communications, a wireless infrastructure company that has developed and managed more than 100 wireless towers in the Washington region), Forkas described the physical toll of the grueling endeavor.
"In the desert, the sun is melting you. The headwinds are making you feel like you are Sisyphus rolling a rock up the hill, only to have it roll down again and have to start all over. Then you are in the Rockies, your extremities numbed by the cold. Finally you summit the highest peak and coast into the Great Plains, only to find the Kansas crosswinds acting like ropes pulling you back and forth and sideways. You have never ridden this far in a training ride and so everything now is uncharted territory . . . and you haven't even gotten to the Appalachians yet, the final push that feels harder than the Rockies because the hills, like going 25 rounds with the boxer Mike Tyson, just keep coming at you."
Len dropped 10 pounds and raised $350,000 for Hopecam, which last year helped 359 kids in 38 states.
Isaac Benjamin was one of them. Unable to attend first grade in Port Orchard, Washington, while he undergoes treatment for leukemia, the six-year-old Skypes for a half hour with his classmates each week.
"It was so special for us," says his mother Sarah. "All his little first-grade classmates were super excited to talk to him. They were quizzing him on his math just for fun, they read a book to him, and they talked to him about Christmas. There was a lot of joy in that meeting.
"This journey that you're on with cancer is pretty gloomy and gray. You get these spots of sunshine that people send your way, like Hopecam," Sarah says. "Those things that people do, they really do help, even if it's a little thing. Okay, Isaac got to spend half an hour talking to his class. It's just a little spot of sunshine, but it makes a difference on your journey."