For Alex — now 25 and a senior in sports management in the IU School of Physical Education and Tourism Management (PETM) at IUPUI — that path revolved around baseball. “Baseball was my rock when my mom was sick,” he says. “That was my time away from being a 14-year-old dealing with adult stuff. Baseball let me be me.”
But he has bigger plans for baseball’s role in his life. He has launched The Cure Baseball (TCB), a nonprofit organization which will raise funds for families facing challenges caused by cancer, as the Paluka family faced a decade ago.
At the heart of TCB will be a summer collegiate team that plays exhibition games against other summer teams to raise funds for families in the community that hosts each game. Their purpose is to raise awareness about the disease and research efforts, and to provide “just a normal family evening” for families facing any form of cancer. “I can’t tell you how important moments like that can be to families,” says Alex. “You cherish those moments when you can just be normal.”
The Cure Baseball isn’t Paluka’s first foray into the fight against cancer. When he played for a college summer team in Utica, N.Y., he got the team’s permission to organize a fund-raiser to help a local family. “I got this itch to give back to the community, to honor my mom,” Paluka says. The team agreed, but told him he’d have to do the legwork. “We raised almost $7,500 for two families,” he adds. Even more than the money, that night raised his awareness about what might be possible, and planted the seed that grew into TCB.
The foundation is the first long-range idea that grabbed his attention the way the sport did. “When I was younger, I felt like I had to make things happen right now, or it wasn’t worth it,” he admits. “But this time, I did my homework. I took 15 months to develop a business plan. I met with people who helped me make it more realistic, more achievable. And now I believe this is what will be my life’s work.”
IUPUI was the right place for the organization to come together, Paluka believes. Not only did he learn how to manage an organization through PETM, but he also had ready access to such IUPUI-based assets as the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center.
The philanthropy center provided knowledge about running philanthropic organizations, while the visit to the cancer center where his mother was once a patient solidified his determination to fight against all forms of cancer, not just breast cancer. “While touring the Simon Cancer Center, I learned that if my mother had come down with the disease in the last year or so, her survival chances would have been much greater,” Paluka says. “Once, that would have made me crazy, mad at the unfairness. Now, it energizes me. It helps me realize that every dollar we raise will help get us where we all want to go: a cure for cancer.”
His visit to the Simon Cancer Center also affirmed his belief that his organization’s donations will be focused primarily on university-based research programs. “That’s where I believe the cure for cancer will come from,” Paluka says.
Researchers hold the long-term key to the goal he wants most: a world free of cancer. Because of his own family’s experiences, Paluka knows the importance of the personal touch of an organization like TCB. “There was nothing I could do to save her, but I can do something for others,” Paluka says. “This past Christmas was 10 years for me. Am I done grieving? No. But I hope my story will help families realize there are people out here willing to put an arm around you, talk with you, and understand.”
The traveling team is expected to start playing in 2013. Already, though, fund-raisers like a 5K run in May and a season-long effort called Intentional Walks Campaign are helping. People can pledge money for each intentional walk issued in a major league game this year. “Can you imagine if just 1,000 people had pledged a nickel for each intentional walk last year in the big leagues, it would have raised more than $60,000,” Paluka says.
Each game, each donation keeps alive the memory of Gail Paluka for her youngest son. People “tell me that what we’re doing is amazing, that it will make a difference, and ask how they can help,” Paluka says.
That personal touch is important to him. Like a lot of children, he had no idea until his mother was gone how many lives she had touched. “I’ve heard from so many people who knew her,” he marvels. “Sorority sisters, former co-workers, friends, all of them passed along their memories of her. It’s like I got to know her in a different way. I didn’t hurt less, but it helped me understand her.”
Helping restore a bit of normalcy to a cancer victim’s family life is a vital part of the fight, Paluka believes. Through chemotherapy and radiology, “my mother put her body through hell just to get a little more time with her family,” he says. “That’s part of what I hope to give other people — the time to be with and love their families!”
Paluka doesn’t play competitively anymore, but his passion for the game now fuels an even bigger venture. “The man always needs baseball more than baseball needs the man,” he says. “Playing baseball taught me how to handle failure, and I’ve failed to do a lot of things I once thought about doing. But most of all, it taught me that you have to pick yourself up each day!”