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2020 Heroes Project: The Decade of Heroes.

By: Kwoineh Haba, Converge Journalism Intern.

After ten years of telling the story of cancer survivors from all walks of life, David Greer
recounts his experience of working with the Heroes Project at Gwinnett Magazine Headquarters in Buford, Georgia.

David Greer, answering questions about the Heroes Project from the crowd of Converge Interns, for this article.

Started in 2009, the Heroes Project was a Goodwill initiative that worked with Gwinnett County’s Relay For Life program, which is the largest relay in the world. They chose at least 12 to 18 cancer survivors from all age ranges and ethnicities to tell their stories using articles, photographs and videos.  “As a company, we were storytellers,” said Greer. “We told stories in articles, we published magazines, we made videos. We decided to take that skill-set and put it to good use for cancer survivors.”

Greer wanted to try a new method to tell the survivors’ stories- a tribute song- albeit his
lack of knowledge about producing music. He found the “nationally-renowned” Tree Sound Studios in Duluth, which had worked with music artists such as Elton John and Whitney Houston, wherein he contacted Paul Diaz, the owner of the studio. Diaz was able to have Grammy-nominated music artist Shawn Mullins produce the song, which was distributed to high school students in the forms of CDs and downloads for them to raise profits for Relay for Life.

As time passed, the number of tribute songs began to increase.
“We ended up writing in subsequent years about three songs for the cause,” said Greer. “One of the songs was adopted as the official Relay For Life song, played all around the world.”

Survivors record at Tree Sound Studios in 2010

The project sold at least $140,000 worth of songs, the profits of which went to the American Cancer Society. As the project begins to choose another group of heroes this year, Greer recalls how meeting these individuals showed him that there was more than just surviving cancer on the surface. “There’s a lot embedded in their story,” said Greer. “On the surface, it’s about surviving cancer, but it really becomes a lot of life lessons.”

One particular example came in the form of Tony Velo, who had been on the project’s
first magazine cover in 2009 at 12 years old. Greer explained that during that time, Velo had gone through brain tumor surgery and gradually began to lose his eyesight, yet he was still able to teach the company many things about life. “Now one lesson in life for me that came specifically from Tony is back then, I was worried about deadlines in the business,” said Greer. “I remember one day having a little headache, I’m kind of griping that I didn’t feel good, I wanted to sleep late, I didn’t want to go to work. But then that day was our interview with Tony Velo, and to sit down … and talk to him at 12 years old, he already knew more about life than I did as a grown man.” Noting the contrast of his work schedule to how Velo went to his cancer screening with “courage,” Greer reconsidered having complaints about situations less stressful than cancer screenings.

A stack of Gwinnett Magazine’s highlighting the journey over the years in the Heroes Project. Here the 2010 cover showcases Tony Velo.

“It’s stories like Tony’s that really help build my faith, to be honest with you,” said Greer. “When you talk to people… what I’ve found in common with cancer survivors… they kind of have a way of teaching you what’s important and why you shouldn’t worry so much.”

Despite the toll cancer took on him, such as the gradual loss of his sight, Velo is currently well into his twenties, living life to the fullest.