Macomb Township Firefighter Joe Warne takes the first steps of his 140-mile walk across Michigan. He left Macomb Township Sept. 24 and arrived near Grand Rapids Sept. 27.

Macomb Township Firefighter Joe Warne takes the first steps of his 140-mile walk across Michigan. He left Macomb Township Sept. 24 and arrived near Grand Rapids Sept. 27.

Photo by Deb Jacques


Firefighter again walks across Michigan

By: Alex Szwarc | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published October 5, 2020

 Leading the walk down 21 Mile Road was retired Macomb Township Fire Capt. Gary Ross.

Leading the walk down 21 Mile Road was retired Macomb Township Fire Capt. Gary Ross.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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MACOMB TOWNSHIP — Plenty of events were canceled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but one local firefighter wanted to walk on.

For the second year in a row, Macomb Township firefighter and Neighbors United President Joe Warne embarked on a 140-mile walk across Michigan for the #WalkForTheRed140 fundraiser.

Shortly after the sun rose Sept. 24, the walk began with a grand sendoff at Macomb Township Fire Station No. 2 on 21 Mile Road.

Several community members and fellow firefighters walked behind Warne, who was equipped in firefighter gear, west on 21 Mile Road to Hayes.

“After meeting all the firefighters battling cancer last year, and learning what they’re going through, it’s important to still do,” Warne said a couple days before the walk. “And, the state needs something positive right now.”

Neighbors United is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping individuals and families who are down on their luck and need extra help. It was founded in 2013.

The 40-year-old Warne, who had COVID-19 in the spring, arrived at the Cascade Township Fire Department in Ada on Sept. 27. The first three days of the walk, Warne covered about 40 miles. He traversed 20 miles the final day.

This year’s walk raised funds for 18 firefighters with cancer. The goal was to reach $50,000 in donations for Michigan firefighters and their families, a mark that was eclipsed Sept. 28.   

Last year, Neighbors United raised over $32,000 from the walk.

Some of the beneficiaries are firefighters currently battling cancer, while the others are families of firefighters who died from cancer in 2020.

Speaking in a brief ceremony prior to the walk, Macomb Township Fire Chief Robert Phillips said three of the firefighters are recent retirees of the department – two of whom have died.

In his remarks, Warne said 2020 has been full of a lot of darkness.

“And through the darkness, we see light,” he said. “Over the next four days, we will only see the light. I’m not a believer that one person makes a difference. I’m a believer that an entire team can move mountains.”

Warne’s former captain Gary Ross has lymphoma and walked the first mile and a half with Warne.

Ross retired in 2017 after 27 years with the department. In August 2019, he was diagnosed with lymphoma.

Phillips said Ross received chemotherapy and went into remission shortly after. Then in 2020, Ross spent 12 days on ventilators and life support.

A press release for the walk adds that cancer is now the No. 1 cause of death for firefighters, according to the International Association of Firefighters.

The walk, originally scheduled for June but was pushed back to September, is Neighbors United’s largest fundraiser of the year.

To prepare for the journey, Warne wore a 50-pound vest and five-pound ankle weights, walking between six and 12 miles a day.

“I hope people can see that we can go out, even during a pandemic, and still support each other,” he said. “We need to start helping each other and treating one another with love and respect.”    

Joining Warne at various points along the journey were members of the Neighbors United team, fellow firefighters and community volunteers.

One of those Neighbors United volunteers is Rob Boitnott.

Boitnott’s 6-year-old daughter, Sarah, died in 2017 from Batten Disease. She was diagnosed with the neurological disorder at age 3.  

Boitnott, of Macomb Township, said he met Warne when his daughter was ill.

“I didn’t request any help from Joe at that time, but I did volunteer with Neighbors United,” Boitnott said. “One time Sarah was hospitalized and he came up with a gift card so we would have something other than hospital food.”

Boitnott said what he hopes folks can learn from Warne is compassion.

“There’s not nearly enough compassion these days,” he said. “You’ll never meet anyone nicer or a better human being. If you’re a total stranger, he will always be there.”

Donations can be made through the Neighbors United Facebook page or online at www.wedontjudge.org. All money raised goes directly to the firefighters and their families. 

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