"Road Less Taken" - Northern Ohio Live Magazine
While his friends set out for profitable careers, Rob Emrich set out on a walk for cancer sufferers. On top of a small hill in central Ohio, between Danville and Wooster, two men in a beat-up pickup truck pull up beside Rob Emrich. They hand him an apple, two crumpled dollar bills and some loose change. "It's all we've got," one says before speeding off down the road. This exchange didn't last more than 30 seconds, but for someone walking across the entire state of Ohio, small gifts like these make all the difference.
A year and a half ago, cancer struck Emrich close to home for the second time in his life. His cousin Seth, a rabbi from Canada with a wife and two kids, died of a brain tumor. "I was one of the people at the funeral shoveling dirt into his grave, and I still remember the thud of the dirt hitting the coffin," Emrich says. "That's still with me, and the sound, the rhythm of that thud stays with me, especially when I'm walking - and often that's the pace I walk at."
The first time Emrich had dealt with cancer was the death of his sister Keren, who was two and a half years old when she succumbed to neuroblastoma, a form of cancer that affects the nervous system. Emrich was six years old at the time.
Thus, 19 months ago, Emrich founded a nonprofit organization, Road of Life, devoted to cancer prevention and awareness as well as to the support of underfunded cancer researchers. Having worked in a lab as an Ohio State honors student in philosophy, Emrich knew how difficult getting funds from the government and private foundations can be for younger, less-established researchers. "The young researcher I worked for had a good background and a lot of good ideas," Emrich said during his walk toward Columbus. "We talked about what an ideal system of funding would be: one designed by researchers and for researchers."
He intends to help fund researchers whose innovative ideas get overlooked relative to larger, more traditional labs. But his new grant-giving foundation, the Keren Rebecca Emrich Cancer Research Foundation, is years away from writing checks. For this reason, Emrich walked 312 miles this past September, from the banks of the Ohio River in Cincinnati to the shores of Lake Eerie beside Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. His walk was just a beginning for the Road of Life, the fund-raising arm of the foundation, which solicits the support of private individuals as well as corporations that want their brand to be affiliated with such a cause.
In conjunction with educational programming aimed at both college students and fourth-graders, Emrich hopes to travel across Ohio again next summer, walking with people in each major city and in rural areas. Along the way, he will offer cancer prevention outreach to under-served communities. Eventually, he plans to begin walking the 16,000-mile Pan-American Highway, from southern Argentina to northern Alaska.
Born in Delaware in 1979, but raised in Shaker Heights, Emrich was an avid adventurer and outgoing child. He played hockey throughout high school and also became an Eagle Scout. Before entering the Ohio State honors program in 1998, Emrich hiked most of the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to New York. The following year, at Ohio State, he earned an Emergency Medical Technician certificate to work in ambulances. During his third year of college, he studied in Israel, concentrating on medical ethics. He camped and hiked whenever he had spare time.
By the time Emrich was back in Columbus, studying for his medical school entrance exams, he had already made the decision to create Road of Life. "About a year ago, I was looking around to see what my friends were doing and seeing what type of effect they were having on society. I know my friends are talented and thoughtful, and I was sort of disappointed that they were not using their talent and thoughtfulness to make change."
Emrich felt there were not enough opportunities for young people to make direct, positive changes to the world. "I saw that people could join a large nonprofit and become a small part of a larger machine and do menial jobs. And I saw their youthful idealism wasn't really being utilized." Other friends decided it would be better to try to earn more money, in order to support the philanthropy later in life. For Emrich, Road of Life is a way for young people to make an immediate impact on society.
This summer's 17-day walk was only one part of Road of Life, which has employees and office space in Columbus. Along the walk, Emrich's friend Matt Youngner, who is the chief executive of Road of Life, and his brother Mike set up information booths at Ohio colleges to get young people to form Road of Life chapters on campuses throughout the state.
During Emrich's walk across the state, Road of Life also hosted a mile-dedication program on its website, www.roadoflife.org. For each of the 312 miles he walked, people could dedicate one mile in honor of someone who either survived or was lost to cancer. Once all the spots were filled, people could continue posting names. A resolution in the Ohio Statehouse, where Emrich had been an intern, as well as in the Senate, commemorated the names and recognized the walk as part of the official state record.
This kind of effort - remembering people's names and getting local communities involved - is what Emrich hoped to do by founding the organization. The effect on him was palpable along the walk. He met many people who recognized him from the local coverage he received and would wish him well as he walked.
One energetic blond woman in her mid-40's stopped him to shake his hand introduce herself as a cancer survivor. A few miles from Akron, on state Route 585, an elderly couple in a blue two-door car pulled over onto the shoulder a few feet in front of Emrich. Confirming that he was the man the couple had heard about earlier that day, the husband said, "We heard on the radio what you're doing and want to let you know you're a hero to us." With the sun setting at his back as he headed northeast, Emrich marched on, with about 70 miles left to Cleveland.
As he walks, he points out the many landmarks and commemorative plazas for cancer survivors, but none for those who succumbed to the disease. One of Emrich's main goals is to change this, and he wants to start by having cancer survivors and families that have lost loved ones come together during next year's walk across Ohio.
"Everyone knows someone who's been touched by cancer, but there's not necessarily a way for all these people who've been personally touched to interact - and, while I see that as a lofty goal, I see that as one of the main goals of Road of Life."
This summer, the walk will be considerable different. The cornerstone will be Road of Life's fourth-grade curriculum, which tries to teach students the state's geography as well as healthy, cancer-preventing lifestyle choices, like eating well and exercising regularly. College students will mentor the fourth-graders and implement the curriculum. They will also walk with the youngsters at different points along the way with Emrich.
In Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland, there will be long walks held as fund-raisers for Road of Life. Emrich welcomes and encourages all to come next year and participate. "It's time for everyone to get involved in the fight. Give your time, make a donation, teach others, change your lifestyle: Get involved and make a difference."
Read the full PDF article profiling Rob Emrich and the Walk For Cancer.