In the 1980s, competitive athlete Scott Zagarino established a program called Because You Can. His idea was to give himself a tangible reminder of how lucky he is to have the physical health that allows him to train and compete, while at the same time raising money to help those who aren’t as fortunate. Recently, he expanded his focus to include paddlesports and created Because You Can Paddle, a means for paddlers to show their appreciation for health and donate money to Last Descents. PL tracked down Scott and probed a little deeper…
PL:What inspired you to start the Because You Can program?
SZ:About a million years ago I raced for the Pioneer Electronics Triathlon Team. I had the charmed life, all training and racing, bills paid and I was seeing the world. One day the thought occurred to me that what I had been given was a gift and it was meant for something other than my own enjoyment. That afternoon I found myself standing in the pediatric AIDs ward at Los Angeles Children’s Hospital asking what I could do to help. There was the usual bureaucratic response amounting to, “what can you possibly do for these kids?” The answer came as mysteriously as had my sudden presence at the hospital. I walked into the ward and just started hanging out with the kids. Then it became an every Tuesday visit, and the next thing you know I had a little fan club. Compared to the guys I got to travel with I wasn’t much, but I was what they got.
That was my wake up call to remind myself every day of the incredible gift my life as an athlete was. After a few weeks I put an old coffee can by my front door and named it with a post it. It was the “Because I Can” can. Every time I got to train or went off to a race I dropped whatever I could spare in it and when it got to $50 I’d get something for the kids. It always did more for me than them. That’s how it started and just to keep this honest, all of those first kids died within two years. I stopped going after the last one went, but they’ve all been bugging me about this can thing for the last 25 years so I thought I ought to do something about it while I could.
PL:As a competitive athlete, a dollar for every workout and competition probably adds up pretty quickly. Did you reach a point where you needed to expand the scope of how the money was used?
SZ:That’s the funny thing. I spent seven years training as a Zen monk and one of the most important things I learned during that time (besides how sore your butt can get sitting, which was a perfect intro to kayaking) was that you can “tell” people about things and how they work until you’re blue in the face, but if you are the thing you’re doing they get it right away, so the answer would be no. This thing works best if I live it and stay out of its way. It didn’t exactly take a rocket scientist to figure out that paddlers would come together to support First Descents if you just provided a way to do it.
PL:What are the different branches of Because You Can? Who are the types of people that participate?
SZ:Right now the sports are, paddling, triathlon, cycling, running and surfing, but people are coming in from everywhere so we started Because You Can Get Outside for everybody. The range? So far the ages are from 16 to 62. Pros like Tao and Ironman winner Craig Alexander to a kid who just saw the sticker at Rite Aid in Hood River and started jogging just so he could get in the program.
PL:How do you get others motivated to start a can of their own?
SZ:Well, I’d love to tell you I had something to do with it, but the truth is people want to help, all you have to do is give them a way that doesn’t require them to do my job full time. Writing this article you’ll probably start a hundred cans going all on your own, right after you start yours. The thing is, just like me 25 years ago, at one time or another some of us get a glimpse of how lucky we really are if we just stop for a second. It’s been my experience that the first thing that happens when you do, is you want to help somebody else who may not be as lucky today.
PL:Have there been any inspiring success stories?
SZ:I don’t know if you can call the stories we see every day “successes,” but they inspire me to no end. Right now there’s a 10-year old girl named Winter Vinecki who’s father is suffering from a fatal form of prostate cancer. He was diagnosed in May on his 40th birthday and by September she’d raised $100,000 for cancer research by competing in triathlons. (video clip at http://vimeo.com/1853805) I don’t know that there’s success there in the Webster’s version, but it does make me want to go to work every day to let people know there’s a lot they can do with a buck or two and a tin can. Thanks Andy.
Start your own can at bycpaddle.org/