A Glen Allen, VA, boy and his father put blood and sweat (but no tears) into an effort to memorialize a loved one and support the Oral Cancer Foundation in the process: They hiked 110 miles of the Appalachian Trail and gave the donations they raised to the California-based Foundation.

“It was tough,” said Robbie Schwieder, 15, who came up with the idea of doing the trek through the Shenandoah National Park portion of the Appalachian Trail, and later asked his father to join him. “It was really brutal, physically, mentally, in every way.” But despite the 40 pound backpacks, grueling terrain, stifling heat, and blisters upon blisters, Robbie and his father, Wylie, persevered and never complained. After all, they were walking in memory of Robbie’s maternal grandmother, Elaine Hegarty, who’d undergone immense suffering of a graver kind—oral cancer.

Hegarty was diagnosed with mouth cancer in 1993. The dignified, independent Milwaukee resident was initially told she’d have to have a radical, disfiguring surgery. After a second opinion, she underwent a procedure during which doctors accessed the tumor from inside her mouth and removed it completely. She healed, and life returned to normal—at least for a few years.

“About 6 years later she developed a second tumor inside her mouth,” said Hegarty’s daughter Katie Schwieder. “They removed that one, and then she was never the same. She wore dentures that never fit properly. She was having pain a fair bit.”

By the summer of 2002, Hegarty’s pain was becoming difficult to bear, and doctors discovered another tumor. “In January of 2003, they did another surgery and realized they couldn’t get all of it without taking the jaw bone, and doing radical radiation and chemotherapy,” Katie explained. Her mother decided against that surgery. “She was a very classy and dignified lady. She had made up her mind. She was 73 years old; she didn’t want to overdo the treatments and she didn’t want to live with a lot of scars.  We brought her to Virginia and got her settled with doctors out here, then quickly learned the cancer had gone into her bone.”

Elaine Hegarty had Easter dinner that year with her daughter’s family. “Three days later, she went into the hospital, into the hospice unit,” Katie said. “And the Sunday after Easter, she passed away.”

The experience rocked the entire family, each of them dealing with loss together and in their own individual ways. Meanwhile, for Robbie and his siblings, school responsibilities continued. Robbie, who takes part in the International Baccalaureate Program at an area high school, had a required project to complete. He was to focus on a passion in his life, research it, pursue it, and later write a report and give a presentation. Students completing these “personal projects,” as they are called, are encouraged to incorporate community service into their efforts. For Robbie, who’d lost his grandmother to cancer, finding a topic to focus on was not difficult.

“He came home from school one day back in May and said ‘I think I’d like to hike the Appalachian Trail.’” Katie said. “Then he added  ‘I think I’d like to raise some money for mouth cancer research.’”

Robbie’s parents were surprised and delighted. And a bit taken aback—this was no small endeavor their son was proposing. But Robbie was not concerned:

“Ever since I went to elementary school, they taught us about the Appalachian Trail because it’s one of our historical landmarks,” he said. “And in Boy Scouts, we did a lot of hiking, camping and outdoor things. Donating to the Oral Cancer Foundation … I just took the two ideas and put them together.”

Robbie proposed to walk 110 miles of the Appalachian Trail over eight days during summer vacation.  He needed a partner and Robbie looked to his father, who looked around in mock panic.

“It was sort of like: How did I get roped into this?” joked Wylie, a banker. “Seriously, what was tremendous to me was that it was all his idea. I thought ‘Holy Crow, where’d that come from?’ But the AT is a big part of Virginia, so I thought ‘That sounds cool. My kid is old enough to dream up something like that, and is still interested in having me participate.’  It’s also cool that he related the community service aspect of the project to something that ultimately killed his grandmother. ”

So despite neither Robbie nor his father ever having walked so long or so arduous a trail, the pair began to plan. Robbie began researching charitable organizations devoted to oral cancer research, education, and patient and caregiver support.

“He got online and said ‘Mom, there’s a mouth cancer foundation!’” Katie recalled. “So he wrote letters to his family and friends asking them to sponsor him and to send checks in care of the Mouth Cancer Foundation. Later, I found out that the Mouth Cancer Foundation is actually based in the U.K. I quickly did some research to find a U.S. foundation, and I found Brian Hill.”

Hill, two-time oral cancer survivor and founder of the California-based Oral Cancer Foundation, was impressed to hear about the Schwieders’ plans. “Robbie is an exceptional individual. Early in his life he has realized the value of living part of your life in service to others, even strangers. His decisions and efforts reflect the thinking of someone far more evolved than his years would indicate. His idea, and the impact that it will have on others, not only in the form of the donation he has raised for a foundation like ours, but as an example to others of what can be done when your focus isn’t centered on your own gains, is far reaching. He’s an amazing young man.” Said Hill.

Robbie’s efforts began paying off. “Most, if not all of the people I sent letters to sent pledges —and I got really large donations from some,” he said.

But there was still the walk to do—and those pledges were based on the number of miles Robbie and his father were to trek. You might think that two people planning to traverse more than 100 miles on the mountainous Appalachian Trail would do a little pre-trip conditioning. In this case, you’d be wrong. The S