About Merak Melikian & Miles4Merak

Merak Melikian was a sophomore at University of San Francisco when a series of health events kept sending him to the hospital. Only age 20, his anemic state was hard to diagnose. After weeks of seeking treatment, he and his mother Debbie found Dr. Jason Sicklick at University of California – San Diego health system (UCSD) who was able to identify a gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST), an uncommon hereditary cancer that starts in special cells in the wall of the digestive tract.

Merak refused to let cancer define him as he lived life on his own terms with drive and determination. He learned how to fight cancer by watching his father, Keith, bravely fight a related form of cancer. No matter how difficult cancer’s challenges got, Merak never complained. Merak continued to maintain his positive attitude and kept fighting, all the while inspiring and motivating others. 

(click Here and Here for coverage of their story) 

At age 25, Merak passed away. Merak is survived by his mother, Debbie, who has made it a mission to drive awareness, funding, and research into a cure for GIST.

Meet Maura

Maura Caffrey is a registered nurse in surgical oncology at UCSD health system. Her whole unit had grown close with Merak and his family, so his cause and Debbie’s mission was close to their hearts.

Maura is socially active within her workspace and has been organizing her colleagues into fun, healthy activities for years. For 2 years prior to the inaugural Miles4Merak challenge, Maura had done the work to organize and administer her own step challenges without the use of a platform

Maura’s first couple challenges raised $700 & $1000 for internal prizes. Maura reached out to Debbie, who added her fire to the mission. Debbie set a $20,000 fundraising goal! Cautiously excited, Maura involved UCSD development and spread the word locally about the challenge. Miles4Merak started as an idea, “maybe I could involve another nursing unit,” and ended up spreading organically to include members across the country.

About Susan

Word moved from office to office, eventually reaching Susan Staten. Susan had not been an active walker, but this single week challenge inspired her to become a regular walker. In less than a year, Susan lost 100 pounds!

“Susan’s story moved us. I actually didn’t know Susan. She’s in a different department, one we didn’t canvass. I got the chills – how did this reach Susan? And how was she inspired to make a huge change in her life for 2 people she doesn’t know?” – Maura Caffrey 

About the Challenge

DIY Roots

For her first two challenges, Maura ideated and promoted the step challenge among her immediate colleagues, a manageable cohort of walkers. She took the time to invite people, collect payments, and manually collect & enter step information each week.

Members submitted weekly step counts, and Maura manually entered them into a spreadsheet. She was receiving text messages, emails, and in-person tallies across several different device types and was responsible for communicating self-made content across several channels.

Prizes included cash incentives collected by Maura and organizers as well as a “perpetual trophy,” which we recommend for ongoing competitions. Perpetual trophies are held by the winner until the next event, when the winner must compete again in order to keep the trophy.

Maura pushed through, but this system wouldn’t work for hundreds of members!

Miles4Merak 2020

In 2020, UCSD used Walker Tracker to build the challenge, onboard users, connect via the mobile apps and communications tools, and use challenge data to offer intra-challenge daily rewards & prizes. Walker Tracker’s platform makes it easy to recruit and administrate thousands of members while offering an activity converter, end-user support for any challenge member that has a question, and device syncing for every major wearable device on the market.

Miles4Merak used a single-week, team-based format that measured progress by averaging team steps together (to not disproportionately reward large teams) with a pacer set to 6,000 steps per day. Progress was displayed on a simple chart, and the activity converter included all Walker Tracker-approved activities. Prizes and incentives are given away daily and at challenge completion, so there’s always something to compete for!

In 2021, it’s the same format with the key update of adding a virtual map alongside the chart-based leaderboard.

The Walker Tracker Difference

Using a third party platform allowed some major updates to the challenge.

“Without Walker Tracker, we wouldn’t have had that connection to people across the country. Before, we were tallying by hand.” 

Beyond time savings, software takes your challenge to the next level:

Support + Competition is key, and teams are the heart of that. It’s better to recruit 12 captains than to recruit 50 members.

Activity Converter
Convert everyday activities and stationary workouts into steps. This also includes wheelchair mobility and inclusivity features.

Interactive Leaderboard
Don’t just post a chart – compete against a pacer across real world geographies!

Mobile Apps
Log steps, post updates, and track progress from your smartphone.

Device Syncing
Sync with mobile devices to ensure consistent, automatic step entries.  

    Sweeten the Pot and Drive Engagement with Incentives

    One last thing that made this challenge special – thanks to the organizers’ efforts – came from going the extra distance to collect and distribute prizes. Admins are often surprised at the enthusiasm of local businesses and organizations to give away free prizes.

    Extras to help your step challenge fundraiser go the (virtual) distance

    • Rewards: Make a few calls and see what relevant businesses can chip in
    • Incentives: Reward daily activity so that people stay engaged throughout
    • Donations: Offer a donation button or use milestone markers in your virtual map to promote links for donations


    In 2020, Miles4Merak enjoyed over 250 participants. With an ambitious fundraising goal of $20,000, these participants and teams raised over $30,000 for GIST research!

    A challenge that started as a fun competition among coworkers is now going strong as a powerful fundraising element for GIST research. Stay tuned for updates from the 2021 challenge!