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Part 3: Survivor Winner's Journey In CA
CEDAR RAPIDS, IA/TEMECULA, CA (CBS2/FOX28) - Cedar Rapids, Iowa Survivor winner Denise Stapley, and Buffalo, New York fan, Brandon Federowicz, came from two very different parts of the country to finally meet face to face. That meeting brought them to Temecula, California.
"Who would have thought that, I mean a reality show would connect people from half way across the country!" Denise said when she first met Brandon.
It's a relationship that developed on Facebook. Brandon had started using social media to try and learn how to communicate better. Eventually, Denise and Brandon started corresponding on Facebook every day. That lead to them navigating cancer together. When Brandon's dad was diagnosed with leukemia in April of last year, Brandon reached out to Denise for support.
"To have this unfold with Brandon and his family, I mean, it just keeps rippling out," Denise said referring to the ripples of connection that can evolve from time as a reality TV star.
The bond that's developed between Denise and Brandon is all part of what Reality Rally's creator, Gillian Larson, calls, "The Ripples of Reality." It was what she hoped to create when she dreamed up the Amazing Race Style event in Old Town Temecula. It's an event where reality stars like Denise are paired with fans like Brandon to raise money for cancer.
"I have personal experience, because I lost both of my parents from cancer and then I lost a 56- year-old brother a few years, ago, and Reality Rally I actually do in tribute to, but through the millions of people out there that have a similar story," Larson said.
The money raised by Reality Rally benefits Michelle's Place, a resource for breast cancer patients in Temecula, California. Participants visit the center over the rally weekend. It's a cause that's very close to Denise's heart and to Brandon's family.
"My mom's a two-time breast cancer survivor. We've lost family members to breast cancer and other forms," she said.
Brandon's mom has also fought breast cancer. The man who became her husband, John Federowicz, stood by her side.
"I had been dating him two months when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I told him that, we should probably stop seeing each other at that point, because I didn't know if the disease was going to take me. He said 'no, he would stick by my side, he would stay with me,' and he did," Charlene explained.
Charlene's now been in remission for 27 years. After she won her battle, John spent much of his life trying to help those with cancer. He did a charity bike ride called The Ride For Roswell in New York. He turned 62 last year and planned on riding 62 miles for Roswell. Instead, after his leukemia diagnosis in April, he was in Roswell as the riders rode by.
"All these riders grabbed a name and they held it up to the patient's in Roswell and the patients were looking out the window and seeing these riders, it was so emotional," Charlene said.
And as it turned out, Charlene's journey with John ended where it began, with cancer. He died after less than six months with leukemia, in October of last year.
"Just before he lapsed into unconsciousness he only asked me for one thing, and the only thing he asked me for was to continue the Ride for Roswell because it meant so much for him," Charlene said.
Thus, Reality Rally and the Ride for Roswell are ways for the Federowicz's to deal with their grief and celebrate John's life.
"I want him to be proud of us as we're doing our best here to help others, and we're going to do our best in June to honor him in the ride for Roswell," Charlene said.
She said she sees it as her purpose, as John's purpose, as her family's purpose to fight cancer. So together with reality stars like Denise they rally for early detection, for funds for Michelle's Place.
"I get all choked up when I start thinking about Michelle," Bill Watson, the father of Michelle Watson said.
Michelle was just 26 when she died of breast cancer. Michelle's place was her dream. She wanted there to be a place where women would have resources to fight breast cancer.
"We want to carry Michelle's spirit forward, and this is our way of doing it," Bill said.
Marilyn Watson, Michelle's mom, is President of the Michelle's Place Board.
"None of us have any guarantees of how long we're going to live, but sharing the specialness of each person, I think is foremost," Marilyn said as she remembered her daughter.
Larry Lyon understands the Watson's story, he's been there.
"Unfortunately the provider said well, you're too young, so we're not going to need anymore tests," Larry said.
His daughter, Jenn, was a Survivor fan favorite. Jenn went back to the doctor after finishing 4th on Survivor.
"By then it was stage three, breast cancer, and she fought it bravely, she was my hero, she was the bravest person I've ever known," Larry said.
While she was alive, battling the disease, Jenn advocated for early detection and awareness. She found out that the BRCA2 gene mutation was in the family. It was enough for other family members to get tested. Larry said his niece even had an elective bilateral mastectomy when she found out she had the gene.
"So this knowledge and this preventive surgery most likely saved her life," Lyon said.
It's the possibility of saving lives that keeps Larry returning to Reality Rally every year to share Jenn's story.
"That's also one of our messages is, early detection, look after your own health, if you're not happy with what your doctor says, go for another opinion," Gillian said.
It's a mission, Denise is happy to be involved with, thanks to her time on Survivor. It's also a mission Brandon and Charlene are happy to be a part of thanks to Denise.
"15 minutes of fame and I call it "fame" has allowed me to pay it forward and raise money and do something good," Denise said.
That "something good" for Denise has been helping Michelle's Place and helping Brandon through a rally to honor his dad.
"I think he was so proud of me," Brandon said.
That feeling, for Brandon is thanks to Reality Rally.
"Know what we make? We make a difference, and we make an impact," Gillian said.
It's an impact they hope will one day reach further than the cancer that brought all of them together.
Reality Rally joins thousands of people in the fight against cancer. It's a completely volunteer effort.
To watch the other stories in this series:
To learn more about Reality Rally: http://www.realityrally.com/
Michelle's Place: http://www.michellesplace.org/