Conn. men walking coast to coast to fight cancer 100 miles from finish line
At the LiveStrong Foundation's headquarters in Austin, Texas, Mike Ross and George Crawford are celebrities.
Since last spring, the two young men from Connecticut have traveled about 2,600 miles on foot. Every step of the way, they focused attention on LiveStrong and its cause of raising money to fight cancer.
“I've been doing this for four years now, and these are the first guys that I have worked with who have done a fundraising effort in this fashion,” said Brian Myers, who oversees grassroots fundraising for LiveStrong.
In May, Crawford, 20, and Ross, 19, two friends from Manchester, Conn., passed through the Alle-Kiski Valley, about 400 miles from where they started their trek in Danbury, Conn.
As of Jan. 30, they were in Desert Hot Springs, Calif., about 100 miles from the Arizona border and closing in on their destination, Huntingdon Beach, Calif.
In addition to logging all those miles, Ross and Crawford stepped up in a big way for LiveStrong and its cause.
“We've raised $10,000,” Crawford said. “That's about half of our goal, but I am not disappointed. I think when we started we just threw a number out. We had no idea of how much we were capable of raising. But, I think we raised a lot of awareness.”
“Am I surprised? No,” Myers said of their success. “It really is the essence of grassroots. They are not pulling in $1,000 donations; they are pulling in $10 and $20 donations. These guys are out there really pounding the pavement.”
“We work with fundraisers every single day, and not every day do people raise $10,000,” he said. “That's a significant fundraising achievement, especially with today's economy.”
From Connecticut to California, Ross and Crawford found their efforts supported by the kindness of strangers.
“I have a lot more faith in people now,” Crawford said in a phone interview. “I think the news makes it seem like there are so many bad people out there. But I think that's, like, 1 percent of the people out there who make the news. And the rest of them just go about their lives and when you get to know them, they are great.”
While they were in the Alle-Kiski Valley, they stayed with local residents in Buffalo Township and East Deer as they made their way to Pittsburgh.
Often throughout the trip they would ask people for permission to pitch a tent in their yard for the night but find themselves invited into that person's home for a meal and to spend the night under a roof.
Usually when they would leave the next day, it was with a donation for LiveStrong.
They found out how the Midwest put the heart in its nickname: America's heartland.
“After Chicago and all the way through the Midwest — and we were told this was going to happen — we were hit with so much hospitality, it was mind-blowing,” Ross said. “When we walked through Illinois, Missouri and Kansas, we set up in the tent on, like, three nights.”
Another friend, Drew Babcock, 19, of East Windsor, Conn., joined the trek in Chicago.
Some days in the Midwest, Ross said as many as 300 people would recognize them from local news coverage and the large American flag they carried.Ross said, “We felt like rock stars. It was pretty wild.”
Their visit to Pittsburgh
The Pittsburgh leg of their trip became memorable as Katie O'Malley of Root Sports managed to get them tickets to a Pirates game at PNC Park and made them guests of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization after reading the Valley News Dispatch story about them. She invited them to the opening game of the National Hockey League Eastern Division finals against the Boston Bruins. It was the first time either had been to an NHL game.
“Pittsburgh did take care of us,” Ross said. “I think George and I agree that Pittsburgh was our favorite city. Chicago was nice, but it was, like, going too fast. Pittsburgh was just a nice, low-key city.”
He said a taxi driver in Pittsburgh who gave them a ride turned off the cab's meter and took them on a tour of the city.
“It was pretty awesome,” Ross said.
Despite such diversions, the mission never changed for Ross and Crawford. Both have family members affected by cancer. Ross lost his stepmother to the disease.
In Desert Hot Springs, Calif., they stayed with Crawford's grandparents.
“His grandmother had cancer, but she is in remission for three years now,” Ross said.
Change of plans
When they passed through the Valley last May, they were bound for a date with the U.S. Marines and boot camp at the start of this year.
“A lot has actually changed with that,” Ross said. “We are no longer going, which was a very big decision.”
After graduating from high school, Crawford and Ross, like many young people, said they were uncertain of their future and lacked a direction for their lives.
They said entering the military seemed a good way to find one, so they signed an unofficial contract through the delayed entry program. Ross said they could opt out of that contract at any time before boot camp.
They decided to devote the time in between that time for a good cause and began their cross-country odyssey.
It led them to an epiphany.
“The Marines for me was the easy way out,” Crawford said. “I know that sounds kind of funny, but I'm in great physical shape, I'm great at doing physical stuff and would be able to what I would have to do for the Marines and I knew I would have a place to stay. But, I knew I might have to go to war some day and I decided that it just was not right for me.”
Ross expressed the same sentiment, saying he did not agree with war, particularly the recent wars the country has fought. Also, he said they found the Marines could not guarantee them the jobs they wanted in the service or that they would not be sent to Afghanistan.
“Which is something we were told when we signed up,” Ross said. “It was so hard because we were in newspapers where it said we were Marine recruits. But, it's my life and I have to do what is good for me.”
“We've talked to quite a few people about it and everybody seems to have taken it a lot better than we expected,” Ross said. “We met so many people who were in the Marines and they said, ‘Look man, you don't want to do that.' George and I have the greatest respect for anybody who fought for our country, but it just wasn't for us.”
“When we are walking and not talking, all we do is think,” Ross said. “We've really had time to think it all out and come to terms with what the best options would be.”
Both now plan to enroll at San Francisco State University. Ross has aspirations to be a sound engineer and Crawford plans to study Japanese language and culture and hopes to teach English there.
End in sight
By mid-February, Ross, Crawford and Babcock will arrive at their final destination, Huntington Beach. Crawford and Ross said although it has be a tremendous experience, they are ready for it to end.
“I really enjoyed the trip but we have been on the road for such a long time, it will be nice to settle down for awhile,”Crawford said.
“We really didn't plan on it taking this long.” Ross said.
One reason it did was they took a two-week break for Christmas when they had the chance to drive back east with Ross' aunt, who lives in northern Arizona.
She paid for the three of them to fly back to Arizona and pick up the trip where they left off.
Ross said in the 2,600 miles they've traveled they ran into a problem only once.
That was on a Navajo reservation in northern Arizona when one of the residents, who apparently had been drinking, pulled a knife on him while he waited outside a store for Crawford and Babcock. But, nothing happened.
“I just kind of talked it out with him,” Ross said. “I guess I just brought myself down to his level. He just started talking and put the knife away.”
But he said several Navajo residents on the reservation welcomed into their homes to get them out of freezing temperatures.
“The people have been the best part of this trip,” Crawford said. “We have met so many nice people. They have just been so welcoming and shown us so much hospitality.“
“I have absolutely no regrets,” he said. “It's never going to be perfect because life is so chaotic, but I'm totally OK with the results.”
So is LiveStrong's Myers. He said the foundation reached out to Crawford and Ross during the trip. While in Chicago they followed one of its staffers and stayed with another while going through Kansas.
Myers said that whenever the foundation would check in to see how they were and whether they needed anything, Crawford and Ross would respond by asking if there was anything LiveStrong wanted them to do.
“You've got these two guys who are telling everyone what we do,” Myers said. “People like that are invaluable to us. If we had two guys like that in every community in the country, we would be a lot better off for it and a lot more people would have access to our services. We have a lot of people who come to us with a lot of great ideas but the percentage of them who really follow through on them is not too good.“
“I can't imagine what a life experience it has been for those guys,” Myers said. “It is shaping and changing their lives literally, as they are walking.”
Ross and Crawford agree.
“I don't think you can walk across America and not come out a changed person,” Crawford said. “It is so much for the better.”
Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.