AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Monday morning, more than 200 paddleboarders took to the Lake Austin waters to begin a 10-hour, 21-mile trek from Mansfield Dam to Tom Miller Dam. Monday’s venture marks the 13th annual TYLER’S Dam That Cancer, a fundraising event to raise money for free mental health therapy for Central Texans affected by cancer.

The event’s host, Austin-based nonprofit Flatwater Foundation, has a targeted goal of $1.2 million in proceeds raised through this year’s proceeds. Collectively, TYLER’S Dam That Cancer has raised more than $5 million for free counseling resources for cancer patients and their loved ones.

For Mark Garza, founder and executive director of Flatwater Foundation, the mission is personal: Garza’s father battled a Stage IV terminal cancer diagnosis, which exposed the Garza family to a lack of affordable mental health resources for those also battling severe and terminal illnesses.

“I knew there had to be a better way, and I set out, so that others don’t have to go through the same trouble, the same difficulty in finding and affording mental health support,” he said.

As his father was battling cancer in the late 2000s, Garza said he leaned into his father’s mantra of water being a healing resource. It was during this time Garza began paddleboarding around downtown Austin. During those trips, he said he discovered the mission of what would become his nonprofit, Flatwater Foundation.

  • 13th annual TYLER'S Dam That Cancer takes place Sept. 12, 2022 on Lake Austin. (KXAN Photo/Julie Karam)
  • 13th annual TYLER'S Dam That Cancer takes place Sept. 12, 2022 on Lake Austin. (KXAN Photo/Julie Karam)

“That led to our mission of providing what we call ‘flatwater,’ which is therapy for families affected by cancer through finding their flatwater,” he said. “And so we took that sort of discovery, that ‘aha’ moment, and I decided we would use that imagery to fundraise money.”

SInce it’s inception, Flatwater has paid for more than 53,000 hours of therapy.

All proceeds raised Monday will go to Flatwater Foundation to assist families. Members of the public can donate to paddlers’ individual fundraising pages here or look at various event volunteer opportunities available here.

Many of the people paddleboarding in TYLER’S Dam That Cancer are all too familiar with cancer’s impact. Some, like Garza, have been affected by a loved one’s diagnosis; others heading to Lake Austin Monday have battled cancer themselves.

Garza said he hopes this spotlight on the issue will help kickstart conversations surrounding mental health and its accessibility — and what better way to capture people’s attention than hundreds of paddleboards floating through Austin?

“It’s nothing like a cancer diagnosis, being out there for 10 hours,” he said. “But surely, it really resonates with everybody, and also with the community that they feel that they’re not alone — that there are others who have been through this.”

The event kicked off at 7 a.m. Monday. More information about TYLER’S Dam That Cancer and its afterparty are available online.