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Meet first-time ESR road warrior Laura Jean

Her Journey from Kidney Donor to Road Warrior

For aspiring Empire State Ride road warrior, Laura Jean, this July will look much different than it did just a year ago. She’s set her sights on riding 500+ miles from Staten Island to Niagara Falls for the first time ever. Already, Laura’s envisioning the roar of the crowd at the finish line and the smiling faces waiting to greet her at the end of her weeklong journey.

“I’m an emotional person, so I can guarantee that I’ll probably be sobbing. It’ll be part of the accomplishment: seeing a lot of friends and family and knowing the difference that I’ve made.” She smiles and adds, “and then, I’ll probably feel pure exhaustion, too.”

Of course, that exhaustion will be a different kind of fatigue than what she felt last year.

An act of heroism

On July 11, 2022, Laura lay in the recovery room of her local hospital following a surgery to remove her kidney. Though she is the picture of health, she had committed to donating her kidney — to a perfect stranger.

Prior to the procedure, Laura never once met her recipient, Elena DePaolo. In fact, Laura had come to learn about Elena’s story through Facebook. She considered helping at first, but then Elena’s story disappeared, and Laura assumed she had found a match. Then, a few months later, the story resurfaced. Laura dug a little deeper and saw that she and Elena shared many things in common — like their hometown and several mutual friends, just to name a couple. What was serendipitous about all of this was that both women are adoptive mothers.

Laura Kashishian lies in the hospital before her surgery to remove and donate her kidney

“I just felt really connected at that moment, and I thought that I had to give it a try. By the end of the month, I had reached out to start the process of donating my kidney,” Laura says.

To many, Laura’s act of heroism in the face of a call for help is one for the headlines. For the 40-year-old Niagara Falls native, however, it’s the story of how a stranger became a close friend.

Laura and Elena had a chance to meet in the hospital following the procedure, and now the two regularly get together for coffee or playdates for their kids.

“I met her the day after my transplant, and it was really emotional.” Elena says about their encounter. “When someone does something for you and you can never repay them, all you can think is, ‘She saved my life.’”

“There were lots of hugs and tears and a lot of emotion,” Laura says.

Elena recalls the first time Laura came to her house after the surgery to meet her three-year-old son. “He warmed right up to Laura the first time she came over. He was playing dinosaurs with her, and you could tell he knew she was a good person.”

Now, Laura’s planning to dedicate her Empire State Ride to end cancer to two people: Her mom, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021, and her new friend Elena, whose battle with acute lymphoblastic leukemia started in 2016.

Laura and Elena smile for the camera
Laura and Elena meet in the hospital for the first time after their surgeries. Laura donated a kidney to Elena. Context.
Laura and Elena stand in front of a Spiderman birthday display. Filler image

Elena’s Cancer Journey, from Her Perspective

Elena’s journey has had many twists and turns. While trying to start a family, she learned she had a condition that caused the organs on the left side of her body to be underdeveloped. Her left kidney had never worked.

Then, she learned she had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and she turned to Roswell Park. Her doctors immediately took action to combat the blood cancer. As part of her treatment, Elena received a stem cell transplant in October 2016. She was put on an anti-rejection medication so the transplant would take. It did, and the treatments proved effective for the cancer. Elena entered remission.

But her pre-existing condition, the cancer journey and her attempts to get pregnant took a toll on Elena’s body.

In 2017, Elena was diagnosed with stage 3 kidney disease, which progressed over several years into end-stage kidney disease. She started dialysis in March 2022 and held her breath in the hopes of finding a donor. But Elena was determined to find one. She put up flyers and went on every major news station that would have her to ask if anyone would be willing to donate. When she posted the story on Facebook, everyone in her community reshared the message.

When Elena finally did connect with a potential donor, the opportunity quickly fell through. So, by the time Elena learned she had another donor, she was skeptical.

“When they called me for the second time, I was afraid to be too excited. I didn’t tell anyone for a really long time,” Elena said.

When she met Laura after the surgery, however, her feelings had transformed. “When Laura walked in, I cried. I just felt like this complete stranger, who lived in the same town as me, helped me. It was like I met my angel.”

A Full-Circle Moment for Laura

For many, going through a major operation may warrant a little time off. For Laura, on the other hand, it was grounds to sign up for something big and challenging. Out of everything Laura is looking forward to this July during Empire State Ride, she hopes seeing Elena at the finish line will be a full-circle moment for both of them. She also hopes to inspire others to consider organ donation.

“I’m just hoping that people are able to see that you can go back to normal life after donating a kidney, and it’s a great gift to be able to give someone,” Laura said.

On Fundraising and the Road Ahead

Now, training and fundraising are in full effect for Laura. Though she originally worried about hitting the $3,500 fundraising minimum, it proved to be easier than anticipated. She’s already exceeded her original goal. She thanks her family, friends and the owner of a local small business for supporting her on her mission to make a difference.

Come July, she’ll be dedicating her ride to countless loved ones who’ve been affected by cancer, and she’ll wear their names on a custom jersey.

As for the Empire State Ride community right now? Laura says they’re already making her feel welcome.

“I’ve joined the Facebook group, so I can already gather the sense of community that this event brings. I’m really excited to get to meet some of the people that I’ve been interacting with on that site!”

Will you join Laura in her mission to give back?

Join Laura at #ESR23

The Official 2023 Empire State Ride Route

The official ESR 2023 route is here! 

Let’s take a deep dive into what our road warriors can expect as they embark on the ride of a lifetime this summer.

Check out the map of this amazing weeklong adventure*

*Note: Route files are subject to change before departure. Final files will be emailed to riders in July.

Click each day to learn more! 

Wagner College, where orientation is hosted.

Orientation Day

Check-in begins at Wagner College on Staten Island. Feel free to arrive early and explore the city before orientation starts at 5 p.m.

CAMP: Wagner College
1 Campus Rd, Staten Island, NY 10301


Riders depart Wagner College

Day 1: Staten Island to Somers

Miles: 63.3 miles
Elevation: 1,793 feet
*Note: Route files are subject to change before departure. Final files will be emailed to riders in July.


Here’s what’s in store for the first day of #ESR23

  • Take a group photo on the steps of Wagner College.
  • Ride on the Staten Island Ferry with views of New York City, including the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Governor’s Island and Battery Park.
  • Cruise along the west side Greenway bike paths, past The World Trade Center and 9/11 Memorial, Aircraft Carrier Intrepid Museum, George Washington Bridge and the Hudson River.
  • Take city streets and the South County bike trail through Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx into Yonkers and Westchester County. Follow the east bank of the Hudson River, Day 1 ends at camp in Somers.

Somers Senior High School
Westchester County
120 Primrose St, Lincolndale, NY 10540

Riders on the Walkway over the Hudson

Day 2: Somers to Rhinebeck

Miles: 79 miles
Elevation: 2,628 feet
*Note: Route files are subject to change before departure. Final files will be emailed to you in July.  


Here’s what’s in store for day two of #ESR23:

  • Head northeast through the towns of Westchester and Dutchess counties, past Vassar College.
  • Take an optional detour to the Walkway Over the Hudson for a photo opportunity.
  • Trek past the FDR Presidential Library, Vanderbilt Museum and Staatsburg State Historic Site
  • Camp at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds, home of the largest six-day agricultural fair in New York State.

Dutchess County Fairgrounds
Dutchess County
6636 U.S. 9, Rhinebeck, NY 12572

A rider cruises into Shaker Heritage SiteDay 3: Rhinebeck to Albany

Miles: 78 miles
Elevation: 2,938 feet
*Note: Route files are subject to change before departure. Final files will be emailed to riders in July.  

Here’s what’s in store for day three of #ESR23:

  • Continue along the Hudson River to the Erie Canal.
  • Rest at the Discover Albany Visitor Center in Albany.
  • Embark on the final nine miles to camp at the Shaker Heritage Site, where the Shaker religion was first founded in the United States.

Shaker Heritage Society
Albany County
25 Meeting House Rd, Albany, NY 12211

Riders at the halfway point of ESRDay 4: Albany to Utica

Miles: 100 miles
Elevation: 2,175 feet
*Note: Route files are subject to change before departure. Final files will be emailed to riders in July.  

It’s century day! Here’s what’s in store on day four as our road warriors tackle 100 miles for #ESR23:

  • Ride along the Mohawk River and the historic Erie Canal through small towns and villages until you make it to Utica, New York.
  • Stop at the official halfway point of the ESR adventure. Stage a photoshoot with picture frames and fun celebratory props!

Arrive at camp in Utica and celebrate your accomplishment during the evening programming.

Donovan Middle School
Oneida County
1701 Noyes St, Utica, NY 13502

A band plays at WeesdsportDay 5: Utica to Weedsport

Miles: 84.1 miles
Elevation: 2,034 feet
*Note: Route files are subject to change before departure. Final files will be emailed to riders in July.  

Here’s what’s in store for day five of #ESR23:

  • Experience breakfast at the famous Flo’s Diner, home of the Ten Cent Coffee.
  • Pass through the picturesque surroundings of Oneida Lake.
  • Arrive at camp at Weedsport Speedway, home of the dirt racetrack, for a party with live music and good spirit.

Weedsport Speedway
Ontario County
1 Speedway Drive #415, Weedsport, NY 13166

Cyclists in front of Pittsford Dairy, en route to SpencerportDay 6: Weedsport to Spencerport (brought to you by Batavia Downs)
Batavia Downs logo
Miles: 82.7 miles
Elevation: +1,988 feet
*Note: Route files are subject to change before departure. Final files will be emailed to riders in July.  

Almost to the finish line! Here’s what’s in store for the penultimate day of #ESR23:

Ferris Goodrich American Legion Post 330
Monroe County
691 Trimmer Road, Spencerport, NY 14559

finish lineDAY 7: Spencerport to Niagara Falls (brought to you by Destination Niagara USA)

Destination Niagara logo

Miles: 75.4 miles
Elevation: +1,724 feet
*Note: Route files are subject to change before departure. Final files will be emailed to riders in July.  

The final leg of #ESR23! Here’s what’s in store during the final stretch:

  • Continue west through Brockport, Albion and Medina.
  • Break for lunch in Lockport and take an optional stop at Lake Effect Ice Cream.
  • Ride through the scenic countryside as you take in wine country.
  • Arrive at DeVeaux Woods State Park and gather for a police-escorted ride to the finish line celebration down Old Falls Street in Niagara Falls.
  • Enjoy the celebration and a short post-ride program! Walk to the falls for a group photo and your signature victory pose.

Finish line:

Old Falls Street USA
101 Old Falls Street, Niagara Falls, NY 14303

Throughout the week, there will be a bus available to help road warriors struggling to complete the mileage. Riders can take it at the start of the day as a booster bus to the second rest stop or take the sag bus back to camp. The Empire State Ride is an experience for any rider who is prepared to take on the adventure of a lifetime to end cancer.

Read more about training for the Empire State Ride.


Day 1: 63+ miles

ESR Rider on Staten Island Ferry

Day 2: 79 miles

Two riders on the Walkway Over the Hudson

Day 3: 78 miles

Day 4: 100 miles

Riders at the halfway point

Day 5: 84 miles

Day 6: 83 miles

Day 7: 75 miles

Two riders hold up bikes at Niagara Falls