Bark for Life celebrates third year in Summit County with memorial to Todd “TJ” Johnson
Relay for Life began about 30 years ago to help fund the American Cancer Society’s mission to save lives. In response, Bark For Life was created for supporters with dog caregivers who wanted to help raise awareness and funds as well.
This year, the Bark For Life event will be dedicated to Todd “TJ” Johnson, a huge advocate For Bark for Life and one of the major reasons why it celebrates its third year in Summit County.
The first Bark For Life event came to the county in 2013, organized by locals to bring together love for their dogs as well as a cause they are passionate about. Johnson, a former Red, White & Blue firefighter, was a driving force to bring this event to Summit. The fire department and the community came together to support Johnson, who suffered from a rare brain tumor. Two years after he was diagnosed, he adopted a shelter dog named Buddy. Buddy was not only able to cheer him up, but was also trained as a therapy dog and lifted the spirits of everyone around him.
He knew his community well and knew how much this county loves dogs, so he thought it would be a perfect place to hold the Bark For Life event, said Andrew Hoehn, chief of the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District and friend and coworker of Johnson.
“Essentially, it was TJ and all his friends really having a party, which was characteristic TJ, and this is the excuse to do it,” he said. “They’re all dog lovers. It was a great way for TJ to get all his friends together, and the Cancer Society was an added benefit.”
Bark For Life holds extra meaning this year because it will be dedicated to Johnson, who passed away from his illness in August.
“Hopefully, it’ll be very empowering, and it’ll get the community together and rally it around what he started and make it more successful,” said Janelle Schultz, community manager for Relay For Life.
After leaving the fire department in 2007, Johnson started his new adventure and brought Bark For Life to Summit County.
“He was kind of the catalyst for starting the Bark For Life a few years back,” Hoehn said. “The Relay For Life are not allowed dogs, so TJ did this as an offshoot.”
He remembers Johnson as a very service-oriented person.
“He really loved the fire department; he wanted to stay a firefighter, but, once that reality hit him that he wasn’t going to be able to do that job, he found more ways to serve and be impactful,” he said.
Johnson was very outgoing and according to Hoehn, was “one of those people, when you meet him, you automatically feel comfortable.”
TAKING CARE OF BUDDY
Nancy Peterson met Johnson while sharing a CME ride back into Summit County.
“He had this darling dog with him, and that was Buddy,” she said. “We had a long ride, so we started talking, and he said, ‘We’re organizing this event with the American Cancer Society and Bark For Life, would you like to be a part of it?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’”
Having never been a part of the American Cancer Society or Bark For Life before, Peterson celebrates her third year with the organization.
Both Hoehn and Johnson’s sister, Kim, will be speaking at the event. Kim is coming from Wheaton, Illinois and will be flying in the Friday before the event.
“We’ll have a little table set up with pictures and medals,” she said. “There will be a laptop playing with a memorial tribute video playing before and after the event.”
Johnson had been fighting his cancer since 2009.
“He had quite a few surgeries in between there,” Kim said, adding that only 70 percent of the cancer was removed during the first surgery. “I think his determination and positive attitude is what got him through that. His focus on reaching out and helping others, I think that helped him.”
On Saturday, she will be with her brother’s dog Buddy and his new owner, Zach Hutchinson.
Hutchinson knew Johnson from working with him over the past seven years at the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District. Johnson was hired in 2000, and Hutchinson said it was the “start of a really wonderful friendship and career with him.” Johnson started as a firefighter, then moved on to become a driver operator. Hutchinson is more than happy to take care of Buddy and provide him with a loving home.
“TJ made it very specific in his last few days that he wanted Kate and I to take care of Buddy,” he said. “We live in a great house for dogs, and we have time to give a lot of attention to our dogs. I eat, you eat. We go for a ride, we go on a trip, we’re taking you with us if at all possible.”
But it’s not just Buddy who is the lucky one. Buddy, a pomeranian-terrier mix, brings a lot of joy to Hutchinson, his wife, Kate, and his other dog.
“Buddy was TJ’s constant companion, and it’s wonderful having him because Buddy reminds me of TJ,” Hutchinson said.
At 10 ½ years young, Buddy remains happy and healthy and is keeping up with Hutchinson’s 2-year-old puppy just fine.
“He’s a happy dog,” he said. “And he’s living a really good dog’s life.”
The Bark For Life campaign will take place on Saturday, Sept. 26. The event will start at 9 a.m. and last until 11 a.m. at the Frisco Adventure Park where a 1-mile walk will take place. All dogs cost $10 and include a bandana. For questions or concerns, contact Schultz at 720-524-5453 or Janelle.Schultz@cancer.org. To register, go to RelayForLife.org/BarkSummitCountyCO.
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