When former professional cyclist and Petaluma resident Steven Cozza heard that his three-year-old godson had been diagnosed with leukemia, he knew he wanted to help.

"I was so busy thinking about how no family should have to go through this and how I could inspire them, that I almost missed how much they were inspiring me," Cozza said.

It was the strength of his godson that Cozza admired most, and that eventually led him to recognize the "incredible ability of children to make a difference," he said. This realization pushed Cozza to arrange the first ever Petaluma Kids Gran Fondo race, which is set for early May.

After spending a decade as a member of the top-ranked Garmin Cycling Team, competing in major races like the Tour de France, Cozza was forced to retire from racing in 2012 after developing colitis, an inflammation of the lining of the colon. Ironically, the diagnosis became a blessing in disguise for Cozza and the community members he is helping through his charity work.

"Don't get me wrong, I was disappointed I had to stop racing," said Cozza. "But I'm more happy now because I can devote more time to helping people, which I love to do."

It's no surprise that Cozza lives to help others. His mother, a kindergarten teacher at Grant Elementary School, and his father, a social worker at Kaiser Permanente, ingrained the importance of helping others into Cozza from childhood.

"We were always doing clothing drives and canned food drives," he said. "It just feels natural to me now."

This year, along with launching a food drive to help supply the Mary Isaak Center, Cozza is looking to help local schools — and the children attending them who have been diagnosed with a major illnesses — by hosting a Gran Fondo race for kids in May. Cozza said he is expecting the event to draw pledges from about 3,500 kids from 36 schools countywide.

Kids who receive pledges will race in one, four or seven-mile routes, with the money they raise benefiting the school they attend. The racers can ride bicycles, walk or run.

"About 80 percent of the money raised will go to the schools, and the other 20 percent will be set aside for a special kid who really needs it," said Cozza. "We've designated about six local kids so far, who are fighting major illnesses."

Cozza, who worked with the schools and the Carousel Fund to help find these children, said that each child is undergoing treatment for a severe illness. He added that because the kids participating in the race will be helping their schools and sick children from their community, it gives them the sense that they can truly make a difference — something he said is vital in order for children to understand the importance of giving.

"I want to show kids that they can help others, that they can make things better, that their actions are important," he said. "It's such a good learning experience that I got as a child, that many parents today just don't have the time to teach their kids."

Cozza, who is married and just launching a new career in real estate, said that he is happy to arrange the event for families to participate in now that he has the time. "When I was cycling, it was so hard to keep up on charity work," he said. "It's got to be like that for families too, so I figure that I will do what I can to make it easier for everyone to get involved."

Cozza's giving attitude fits well into the values of Petaluma, as evidenced by the community support he has received in his endeavor. Bici Sports of Petaluma has become a sponsor of the event and is currently working to arrange a bike giveaway for the top pledge-getters. Owner Andrew Christensen said that he is happy to be helping out Cozza's cause in any way he can.

"It's a good way to get kids out and exercising and having fun," said Christensen.

Alan Allen, a Petaluma resident and the founder of Petaluma Community Bikes, has also joined Cozza's efforts, along with the PTAs from every Petaluma school involved in the race.

"It's just great to see everyone getting involved so readily," said Cozza. "When I do races for adults, it's usually like pulling teeth to get anyone to help out, but in this community, and for this cause, people have really stepped up."

The Bici Sport Petaluma Kids Gran Fondo will take place Saturday, May 11 at Lucchesi Park. For more information, visit www.stevencozzaraceforkids.org

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)