Aloha spirit flows at Luau, Longboard event where Dennis Carson will be honored

By Kathy Day

Sunday culminates a year of hard work by more than 100 volunteers who have been working to make the annual Luau & Longboard Invitational happen.

It’s also the day that Dr. Dennis Carson, who this year went back to the lab after eight years as director of the UCSD Moores Cancer Center, will be honored at the event that has raised more than $5 million. He’s now working on finding drugs to treat breast and ovarian cancer and leukemia at the UCSD facility, one of only 40 Comprehensive Cancer Centers in the nation designated by the National Cancer Institute.

Carson, known for discovering and pushing through to clinical use a novel anti-cancer agent marketed as Leustatin, will accept the Rell Sunn Award given each year to “the person or persons who best embody the true aloha spirit and display the qualities shared by Rell and the Luau & Longboard Invitational — the battle against cancer, combined with unselfishness, compassion and a dedication to helping others,” according to the event website.

At 32, Sunn was diagnosed with breast cancer and was told she had just months to live.

Known as the “Queen of Makaha,” where she surfed and paddled outrigger canoes and helped children, she fought the disease for 15 years before passing away in 1998. That was the first year the award was presented in her honor.

Carson said for years he’s watched the luau and surfing contest, which features teams from the biotech, medical and financial communities who are joined by surfing legends who go “Surfing for a Cure.” There’s even a team of “Thrivers,” who are all cancer survivors.

“The event is unique to San Diego and attracts a different group of supporters,” he said, noting that many are still working, younger and active in the business community. “Many haven’t ever thought of cancer or estate planning.”

As director of the center, he saw the good that the funds raised at the event have done. Funds go to the director’s discretionary fund, he said, and can be used for pilot projects and early research, recruiting and support for patient services that insurance does not cover.

Cory Reynolds, a business development manager with Manpower Inc., and Taylor Peterson of CONNECT are co-chairs of this year’s event and began working on it at 3 p.m. Aug. 20, 2010, when they were introduced at the end of the luau. That day lasted until dark, he recalled.

Since then, they’ve spent countless hours rounding up other volunteers, who have been meeting since February working on everything from logistics to recruiting surfing legends and sponsors.

Reynolds said he and Peterson are “just cheerleaders” whose task is to keep the volunteers engaged and create a community. For some it’s become more than that — several have found spouses among the volunteers.

Each year, the team must also come up with an event artist, asking for a donation of a signature artwork that can serve as the logo for shirts and posters.

This year Robb Havassy stepped up. A self-taught artist who once was an international fashion model, he’s known for his sports portraits and for his unique style in paintings of women, landscapes, flowers, children and animals.

Reynolds is a cancer survivor — he is in remission from leukemia — and knows full well the value of drug discovery and research. Instead of taking multiple medications, he has to take only a single pill each day, he said. Without it, he added, the only alternative would have been a bone marrow transplant.

“I had been a surfer for years,” Reynolds said, noting that he went to his first Longboard event in 1996 when he worked at SAIC. “Seeing the legends was the coolest thing ever.”

Acknowledging he didn’t know about the cancer center, he “ran around with a camera” that first year and got more involved as the years went on.

Now he’s in the last hours of the effort and can’t wait to show off the Moores center during Saturday’s VIP event — the first time it’s been held at the center.

He said it will be like “pulling the curtains open” and showing off the center to the more than 200 guests.

Looking back, he said, it’s pretty amazing that they reached the $5 million mark just by having people surfing on the beach.