Six-year-old Mariana Altomare was too young to have any vivid memories of her father’s battle with lung cancer.
Altomare, now an 18-year-old Eastside High School 2021 graduate, said she and her brother remember hearing about how her dad needed surgery, but it wasn’t until they were a few years older that they understood what he endured.
“It’s weird finding out about that and being scared about that after it’s already happened,” she said. “That never stops being a worry, that never stops being a concern.”
Although their father’s experience is a set of spotty memories for the siblings, his survival inspired Michele Altomare, a 22-year-old UF computer science senior, to launch Cars for Cancer in 2019. The company offers T-shirts, hoodies, sticker decals, key chains, windshield banners and car air fresheners, which are promoted at car shows across the United States.
Cars for Cancer raises funds and awareness for children’s cancer research, and part of the proceeds go directly to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
Michele Altomare said the car scene is a vast community of people, some of whom have a connection to cancer. This community makes it possible to pull together those who want to contribute to the company. Some even pledge their vehicles to raise awareness.
Juan Reina did just that. The 26-year-old from Cape Coral, Florida, emblazoned his 2013 Hyundai Genesis Coupe with a pink breast cancer awareness ribbon.
Because most of his family lives in Colombia, Reina is especially close to his family nearby, including his cousin Karen Sentner, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2018. “It was like my sister being diagnosed with breast cancer,” he said. “It broke my heart.”
Although Reina helped Sentner’s family by picking up her kids from school while she endured treatment, he said he wanted to do more.
“I looked at my car one day and then I was like well shoot, you’re a walking billboard,” he said. “I just started thinking of what are things that I can do to make this car into a driving, moving breast cancer awareness vehicle?”
Reina created an Instagram account for his newly designed car and from there, discovered Cars for Cancer. Quickly, a partnership formed — Reina used the platform to promote awareness for breast cancer and Cars for Cancer.
On October 13, 2019, Reina and Michele Altomare attended the third annual Breast Cancer Awareness Benefit Show in Tampa together where Reina presented his car, and Michele gave out Cars for Cancer merchandise.
Reina drove into Sentner’s driveway one day, surprising her with the car’s new transformation.
“It hit me just how much it had impacted my family,” she said.
The 35-year-old mother of three said she appreciates Cars for Cancer’s focus on children because while none of her kids had to endure a diagnosis, they had to watch their mom battle breast cancer.
“My kids needed support,” she said. “Their mom just wasn’t able to be around like they were used to.”
Sentner said she went into remission in June 2019 and has since maintained endless gratitude.
“Nothing in this life matters more than your health and those that you love,” she said. “I tell my husband sometimes, I could live in a tent, as long as we’re together.”
Now, Cars for Cancer is calling for summer interns as it continues to expand.
Michele Altomare said he began fulfilling orders in the Spring of his sophomore year. His cramped Graham Hall dorm burst with envelopes, packages and cardboard boxes all waiting to be shipped to a growing pool of eager customers. He said his roommate nicknamed their dorm “The Factory.”
He eventually partnered with a distribution warehouse and acquired a team of family members and friends to help with the project’s efforts. But his email and social media inboxes are flooded with messages every day from people expressing appreciation or interest in helping out.
“It’s a blessing to have that problem because people want to get involved,” he said. “As soon as you have five or six conversations that you have to manage amidst everything else, it gets pretty busy.”
With this search for interns, he said he’s looking to delegate administrative tasks like managing social media accounts and ensuring every person gets a timely response. He encourages anyone with any kind of interest, skill set and availability to apply.
The company’s success has meant numerous late nights for Michele Altomare, who balances the rapid growth alongside the demand of classes and personal commitments.
Since its inception, the company’s roots have remained family-oriented. Michele Altomare said his parents are always supportive, but most new ideas and advice came from his sister.
“Having stuff to actually work on together is definitely a big part of building a relationship,” Mariana Altomare said. “It’s given me, at least, opportunities to understand him better and what he’s passionate about.”
Michele Altomare isn’t certain about what the future of Cars for Cancer entails, but this doesn’t discourage him from believing in its mission. He said people often think life comes in set stages, but in reality, there is never a right time to start anything.
“If you can see something in your head, you can hold it in your hands.”
Abigail is a second-year journalism major covering university general assignment news for The Alligator. When she’s not catching up on school or reporting, she’s spending time outside, reading or reorganizing her Spotify playlists - usually all at the same time.