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Headshot of Christina Story
Christina Story found a passion for exercise science and helping cancer patients when she was a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, something she now does as a career at Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah.

“How’s school?”

The seemingly simple question helped set Christina Story on a career path when she explained to her grandfather how she filled her days as an undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill. It also led Story to the beginning of a philanthropic journey dedicated to helping others.

While at Carolina, Story ‘08 attended a class taught by UNC Lineberger’s Claudio Battaglini, PhD, a professor of exercise science. He also was the director of the Get Real & Heel program, a free exercise program for cancer survivors at the North Carolina Cancer Hospital, the clinical home of UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Launched in 2006 by UNC Lineberger, Get Real & Heel offers a space for patients to exercise alongside expert trainers who understand what they’ve gone through. That idea hit close to home for Story, whose aunt and other family members had undergone cancer treatment.

“It triggered me when I went to Battaglini’s class,” she said. “I went up to him and asked about the project, since it was kind of personal to me right then. He invited me to come shadow him and see the program.”

Becoming part of the solution

What she experienced at Get Real & Heel sparked something in Story. She found that cancer affected each patient differently in regard to mobility, endurance and other physical abilities. She saw the challenges and struggles each patient faced during their sessions. And she wanted to be part of the solution.

“This was challenging in a way that I hadn’t seen before,” she said. “I think it’s so powerful that exercise and diet are one of the few parts that [patients] can control. Patients may not feel like themselves, but they can control this, both physically and mentally. I realized I could make a difference for people, that I have the knowledge to take care of people in this field.”

Christina Story with her grandpa, Petro Kulynych.
Story’s volunteer work with Get Real & Heel inspired her late grandfather, Petro Kulynych, to make a contribution to support the program, something the Kulynych Family Foundation II has continued to do since 2008.

Her grandfather, the late Petro Kulynych of Wilkesboro, North Carolina, was excited to hear about his granddaughter’s efforts with Get Real & Heel. He visited her at Carolina, taking a tour of the facility while he was in town and was interested in what he saw. “He made the first gift in honor of the work I was doing,” Story said.

Since 2008, The Kulynych Family Foundation II, Inc. has contributed every year to Get Real & Heel, with Story introducing the cause to her family and now serving as an officer at the foundation.

“It’s healing people and making a difference in their lives. We decided to continue that support in honor of my grandfather and the work Get Real & Heel was continuing to do. It’s hopefully a great formula for other programs in North Carolina,” Story said.

Expanding Get Real & Heel

Efforts are underway to expand and improve the Get Real & Heel facility on the edge of campus, which was originally outfitted by UNC Lineberger and the Department of Exercise and Sport Science. Facility renovations and updates to the program’s exercise equipment are going on now.

UNC Lineberger’s Carly Bailey, MA, the program director of physical activity and integrative oncology, said gifts like these directly funded the repairs and updates to the Outdoor Education Center. Bailey said the gifts have facilitated major program changes and helped Get Real & Heel evolve to better address the needs of those affected by cancer across the state.

The renovations will open up the top floor of [of the building], which will allow us to safely have more participants in the facility, offer new group programming like yoga and circuit training, and continue to provide our remote programming that we launched during the pandemic to participants who are unable to physically attend classes in our building, including patients from rural parts of North Carolina,” Bailey said.

In addition to programming updates, locker rooms will become more user-friendly, and the center will also be adding a garden for aesthetics, as well as offering gardening as therapy for patients involved in the program.

Key role of philanthropy

Christina Story at graduation with her mom, Janice Kulynych Story.
Story and her mother, Janice Kulynych Story, are officers at the foundation founded by Petro Kulynych.

Philanthropy is key to keeping programs like Get Real & Heel up and running, supporting operating costs and funding new staff positions so the ever-growing program can accommodate more patients in need of its services. The funds also allow the program to grow and expand. Bailey said they hope to offer virtual programming to a wider group of patients, target patients with disease and age group specific programming, and create exercise-based programs to meet a wider variety of patient needs.

“We are so grateful to our donors, and every little bit given makes a difference in the lives of the participants we serve,” Bailey said.

“A few donors can make a big difference,” Story said. “When you see that facility, or participate in their events, you get the feeling. You see how your dollars are making a difference. There is a sense of ownership, but there is a personal connection there with the patients that you’re making a difference despite a dollar amount.”

That drive to help patients was instilled in Story, and it still motivates her today. After graduation, she moved to Utah and worked in different fields until she realized her true passion was to connect with cancer patients through exercise and wellness. She enrolled in a master’s degree program at Carolina, working with UNC Lineberger’s Ashley Leak Bryant, PhD, RN, on an acute leukemia study focused on exercise for patients undergoing treatment.

Story is currently an exercise specialist for the Wellness and Integrative Health Center at Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah, working with another exercise and wellness program for cancer patients. “It’s been a continual journey,” she said.

During her work with UNC Lineberger and her current position at Huntsman, Story said she has seen patients improve and thrive after exercise therapy and knows what a huge difference it can make.

“I’m investing in people who are trying to get healthy after a really challenging time in their lives,” Story said. “If you talk to someone who’s been through [this kind of] program, the benefits it provides is beyond exercise. It makes a difference in people’s lives for a very small cost.”

Story knows her grandfather would approve of the work she’s doing now and also her dedication to a cause he cared about. She said he found ways to contribute to his community as both a philanthropist and citizen, something she hopes to continue in her own life.

“I am fortunate to be able to help others. It’s a responsibility, but it’s also a joy,” she said. “You find fulfillment in helping other people.”