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."