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Michigan firefighter walks across state over growing cancer deaths among colleagues

Walk for the Red began in 2019, when cancer was listed as the number one killer among firefighters. All proceeds from the walk go to firefighters and their families.

MICHIGAN, USA — The annual Walk for the Red is returning for its fourth year in Michigan. The organizer is a firefighter on the east side of the state who walks across Michigan in support of firefighters battling cancer. That organizer spoke with 13 ON YOUR SIDE about why this year’s event means so much more to him.

Joe Warne is president of the organization Neighbors United and a Macomb Township firefighter who started the Walk for the Red in 2019. That’s the same year cancer was declared the number one killer among firefighters.

This year’s walk is already underway after kicking off Thursday in Macomb Township. They’ll be finishing up Sunday, Sept. 11.

“If it wasn’t for the 9/11 firefighters contracting cancer – and it’s terrible for them – all the scientists and all the science that’s come through with us – cancer wouldn’t even be on the map as occupational issues for firefighters," Warne said. "What they went through opened the eyes to, is this going on anywhere else?”

This year, they’ll be helping more Michigan firefighters battling cancer than ever before. Since last year’s walk, 24 firefighters have signed up for assistance. That includes a childhood friend of Warne’s, someone he hadn’t even realized is also now a firefighter in a neighboring city. Their reunion gives this year’s event that much more meaning.

The challenge, Warne says, at times, can be finding firefighters in need.

“Firefighters don’t really reach out for the help. We’re not ones to ask for help," he said. "We have more of a servant’s heart, and so when we find out, we actually find out through social media or we found out they’ve gotten cancer through like referrals of friends because they don’t want the help even though they need it. So, that’s just who we are and we show up and we surprise them with checks.” 

Over the last year, 10 of the 24 firefighters being supported by this year’s walk have already died from their battles with cancer. It’s one clear sign of the magnitude of this issue.

“These jobs are not getting filled up like they used to and people are not wanting to do this job. So, we need all the help we can get to keep these people on their feet,” said Warne.

The walk will finish up in Ada on Sunday, with participants taking on about 40 miles each day. 100% of proceeds will benefit the firefighters and their families.

Last year, each firefighter received a check for $5,000.

If you would like to donate, visit the Neighbors United website.

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