A day on the water, a day for dreaming

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Teenager Brian Tolkin’s Beams and Dreams program takes cancer patients out on boats

Teenager Brian Tolkin’s Beams and Dreams program takes cancer patients out on boats

Brian Tolkin knows the value of a good day on the water, but he also knows that not everyone is able to enjoy the spray and sun on their faces. That’s why a little more than four years ago, the now 17-year-old started Beams and Dreams, a program that invites cancer patients, survivors and their families on boating excursions as a break from their medical challenges.

To date, Tolkin has gotten more 1,000 people out on the water. A senior at Mercer Island (Wash.) High School, Tolkin is one of 40 nominees for a Volvo For Life Award, which recognizes hometown heroes around the country. “I grew up [in a] family who owned a 20-foot Sea Ray that is now as old as I am,” says Tolkin. “I love to be out on the water and watching the sunsets, and my brother and I have always been infatuated with it for as long as we can remember.”

Tolkin’s mother, Laurie Tolkin, works for the FredHutchinsonCancerResearchCenter in Seattle, so he also has a connection with those suffering from the disease. “I am lucky to not be affected personally by it, but everyone knows someone who had cancer or passed away from it,” says Brian Tolkin. “I can remember my parents instilled in me the importance of community and recognizing what we have and how we can share that.”

Tolkin says Beams and Dreams is the result of a series of conversations around the dinner table that began in late 2002 when, at age 13, he broached the idea of helping cancer patients with his brother, Jason, who is a year older. The name plays off the dual meaning of the word “beam” as both a smile and the measure of a boat’s breadth. And time spent on the water fulfills the dreams of participants.

“We never thought it would get to be this big,” says Laurie Tolkin. “During those first conversations, we thought this would be a nice little something to do, and now it’s incredible. It brings us to tears sometimes when we get the thank-you e-mails and letters from people who have gone.”

But getting the program off the ground was no easy task. Tolkin recalls how he and his brother wrote hundreds of letters to boat owners and vendors, asking if anyone would be willing to spare a boat — just for a day.

“We got a lot of rejections and some rare yeses,” says Tolkin. “One of the first companies that responded was Olympic Yacht Center [in Seattle] in 2003, and they have been with us every year since.”

Olympic donated the use of a 58-foot powerboat for the group’s first outing, in August 2003, and Elliot Bay Marina in Seattle soon came aboard, recruiting 10 boat owners to participate a week later. Tolkin has held 15 outings since then, about three per year.

“Now that we have the basic framework for the events, we constantly ask ourselves, What else can we do to make it better, to grow it?” says Tolkin. “We’ve gotten people to donate cookies, centerpieces, T-shirts and even magicians.”

Other groups, such as the local chapter of the American Cancer Society and, of course, the HutchinsonCancerResearchCenter, helped get word of the program to patients and families. There often are several boats on hand to take the 100-plus attendees around Lake Washington and Puget Sound. “They are assigned to different boats, and we usually go out for about 2-1/2 hours,” says Tolkin. “Everything is free of charge, and it’s nice because they don’t have to worry about paying for this on top of already mounting medical expenses.”

He says his favorite excursion is the one they do specifically for children. “It’s great seeing the kids sometimes experiencing boating for the first time and also meeting other children with cancer, so they know they aren’t going through this alone,” says Tolkin. “I knew going into this that it would be rewarding, but it is hard to quantify that reward. I love seeing the people experience something they’ve never done before or … can’t on a regular basis.”

Though his brother is attending ClaremontMcKennaCollege in Claremont, Calif., and Tolkin will be graduating from high school in May, the teen is confident they will be able to continue offering Beams and Dreams outings. “E-mail really helps to communicate with him and coordinate events,” says Tolkin. “I feel like as we are getting older we are gaining credibility and building more of a name for ourselves. People know we are legitimate.”

Tolkin also credits the program for helping him build organizational and people skills that will be valuable in the future. “I’ve definitely learned how to make everyone participating feel welcome, and it has helped with public speaking,” he says. “It has been a great experience for me.”

Tolkin says he learned about the Volvo For Life nomination last fall, and the winners were to be chosen through online voting at the awards Web site (www.volvoforlifeawards.com). “I have no idea who nominated me, but I was thrilled,” he says. “I wasn’t expecting anything like this.”

Laurie Tolkin says that while they have had their share of ups and downs with the program — like a T-shirt vendor backing out a few days before an event — they realize there are a lot of people willing to give their time and resources to something worthwhile. “We’ll be coming up on six years with this program,” she says. “There was a lot of skepticism at first because you had 13- and 14-year-olds contacting these companies. But six years later people know this wasn’t some flaky idea, and they have proved they’re not just a bunch of kids.”

Tolkin says the next step is to take Beams and Dreams to other cities. Because it is not a non-profit organization with 501c3 status, the group cannot accept monetary donations. But Tolkin says anyone interested in donating a boat or looking for more information should e-mail him at beamsanddreams@hotmail.com .