Editor's note: "Community Champions" is a weekly feature in which area residents who are advocates for the community are profiled. To recommend someone for consideration, send an email with the subject line 'Community Champions' to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include contact information about the person and their background. Read previously published stories on columbustelegram.com.
For Columbus native Erin Nahorny, July 30, 2012, will always be a day she remembers.
That morning she took her 4-year-old son to the doctor for what she thought was ongoing low-grade fevers and some pain in his left leg that summer. Instead, they found out little Sammy had Stage 4 High-Risk Neuroblastoma with metastasis to the bones, bone marrow and lymph nodes – essentially cancer of the central nervous system.
“It was so scary,” Nahorny recalled, noting doctors suggested Sammy’s likelihood of survival was only 10 percent. “It was the scariest day of my life … I won’t ever forget that day.”
Almost seven years later, 11-year-old Sam’s cancer is still around, though he is doing quite well as it is stable. He has beaten the odds.
“Miraculously, he came through. I like to call it the power of prayer,” she said. “Nobody expected his disease to stabilize the way that it did.”
But this isn’t Sammy’s story, which has been well-documented throughout the years. This is about Nahorny, a wife, mother of three, friend to many and hard worker who thought she had found her path in life only to have it completely changed by the four words every parent never wishes to hear: “Your child has cancer.”
But Nahorny didn’t sulk – she fought like hell. There wasn’t much time for tears as she and her husband, Chris, quickly learned of the discrepancy when it came to available research and funding for childhood cancers compared to all other forms. So with great support from her family, friends and the greater community, she, Chris, along with a handful of close pals, started up nonprofit Sammy’s Superheroes Foundation in an effort to raise those funds, as well as research and awareness, for all kinds of childhood cancer.
Now, she’s helping not only her own son but thousands of children battling cancer in hopes of saving as many lives a possible, all while raising her family and managing a career in real estate, among other things.
“Cancer reminds us to not sweat the small stuff. It has given us the opportunity to see the absolute best in people and to watch how this community rallies to support its own,” Nahorny said.
Nahorny and her three younger sisters grew up in town, as Columbus Hydraulics was then their family’s business. She ended up attending Scotus Central Catholic High School and graduated in 1994, citing her childhood as special because of the unique small-town living this area provides.
“Columbus was great. You go to school and you knew everybody,” she said, jokingly describing the town by using the ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ theory that anyone on earth can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries. “In Columbus, nobody is a stranger. It was great growing up here. Our community was and is just tight-knit.”
Nahorny went to Creighton University for two years but would go on to finish up and graduate from Nebraska Wesleyan in Lincoln. She then obtained her master’s degree in counseling psychology from Doane College (now University) before going into the working world.
“I started out just doing mental health work at the crisis center in Lincoln, serving as their community social worker for the mental health board,” she said, adding she also worked for Insight, which strives to provide companies’ employees guidance and assistance in times of difficulty.
Although her husband, Chris, is also from Columbus (he attended Lakeview High School), the two met while they were both down in the Lincoln area and were married May 31, 2003 there.
So in 2005, they decided it was time for them to move back to Columbus to raise their family as he had gotten a job working with her dad at Columbus Hydraulics.
“We never thought we would move back to Columbus,” Nahorny said. “At first, we're like, ‘Oh my gosh, what are we doing?’ But Columbus is a great community to raise a family.”
As their three kids (Ella, Sam and Jacob) got older, went to school and got involved with activities, Nahorny and her husband began to meet new people and get more involved in the community.
When Nahorny and her husband first learned their then-4-year-old son was battling cancer, she said it was heartbreaking. But doing research about the illness and discovering only 4% of federal cancer research is allocated to children and that it is the No. 1 cause of death by disease among kids was the gut-punch, she stressed.
“It was just so hard,” Nahorny said, noting that making matters worse was that by December 2012, it was determined Sammy was not responding as hoped to the chemotherapy treatments he was receiving.
They had been all over the country – including to Boston, Chicago and Seattle – trying to get their little boy the best treatment possible.
And then God delivered the Nahorny family three angels in the form of her friends: Columbus’ Amy Williams, Kim Brandenburg and Mary Sueper. As how what is now considered a legendary story in the community about local kindness goes, the three friends on Aug. 1, 2012, talked about what they could do to help Sammy and his family.
Williams said she, Brandenburg and Sueper were brainstorming ideas of what specifically they could do when she looked over at some laundry she had recently folded and noticed a superhero T-shirt – it was that easy. She held up the shirt and said they all instantly had the idea for the ‘Sammy’s Superheroes’ concept.
The trio created T-shirts with a Sammy's Superheroes logo and subsequently asked local Nebraska schools, including those in town, to support National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month that September by purchasing and wearing them.
“We just didn’t know what else to do, but we needed to do something,” Williams said. “At the time we thought we would raise money to give the Nahorny family.”
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About $40,000 was raised to present to Erin and Chris, which Williams today said was an accomplishment.
“I was just blown away,” she said of the community’s support.
Nahorny said she and her husband were overwhelmed by the gesture, unaware such a significant donation was coming to them.
“They came to us with about $40,000,” Nahorny said, acknowledging they were in complete shock. “We were not prepared to accept that kind of money at that point.”
Not wanting the money to go unused, Nahorny said family friend and attorney Sarah Pillen suggested they take the Sammy’s Superheroes concept to the next level by creating a 501 c3 nonprofit organization that could donate funds to researchers and hospitals they felt were doing the most innovative research aimed at finding cures for childhood cancer.
So Erin and Chris, along with Williams, Brandenburg and Sueper, formed the nonprofit’s first board of directors. Then, in early 2013, Sammy’s Superheroes officially began.
“We just decided we had a responsibility to other families,” Nahorny said. “There was money coming in and a lack of research for childhood cancer. But we did not do it on our own. This happened because of the community we live in that embraces the cause. When there’s something going on with somebody, the community will pitch in and help however they can.”
Williams said the creation of the foundation is a testament to the character of Nahorny, who she called her best friend.
“For someone to do that is pretty selfless,” she said, praising Nahorny as a special and kind person.
Life is good for Nahorny, who at one time worked at the Center for Survivors before giving that up so she had more time to travel for Sammy’s treatments.
She and her husband are involved with their church, St. Isidore’s, where their children also go to school and one of her sisters, Amy Evans, is the principal. She said she’s thankful to have Evans and her other sister Megan Cimpl living in town, and her third sister Jennifer Bohn living nearby in Lincoln. Her parents, John and Marlene Cimpl, as well as her in-laws, Mike and Jean Nahorny, also live in Columbus.
She and her husband enjoy golfing together, something they do at Elks Country Club. She and her family (including Ella, 14; Sam; 11 and Jacob, 8) are also avid travelers, something positive that came out of the trips across the country they did when Sam was in treatment. One summer, she said, they rented out an apartment in Seattle and made the most of their extended stay out on the West Coast while Sam got his treatment.
“We really like to travel,” she said. “And it’s funny, our daughter I don’t think is evening thinking about Nebraska schools for college just because she enjoys traveling and is comfortable in other places.”
Sam’s cancer is still present, but he has been stable for some time now. Still, Nahorny remains as committed as ever to the foundation and its mission. She’s currently serving as president of its board of directors.
Her efforts have definitely not gone unnoticed, as numerous Columbus residents praised her commitment and kind spirit.
“Busy, tireless, very, very passionate about Sammy’s Superheroes,” longtime friend Kurt Shevlin said of Nahorny. “You will not find anybody more passionate about finding a cure for kids’ cancer. And not just for Sammy. There are a lot of other kids impacted. I’ve always been impressed by how unselfish she is in regards to Sammy’s Superheroes.”
Nahorny said because of her commitments to the foundation and the emotional toll Sam’s diagnosis took, she opted to not return to the social services field. Actually, she recently celebrated one year working as a real estate agent on a part-time basis for Renee Mueller’s Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices office in town.
“This is a whole new wheelhouse. It was a lot to learn,” Nahorny said, with a laugh. “I am a people person. I love to meet new people and know their stories. I love a good social gathering, so this sort-of started to feel like a natural fit for me to do real estate.”
The idea had been something Nahorny and Mueller talked about in the past before she decided to pursue it and take all the necessary classes.
“I feel humbled they (clients) would choose me,” Nahorny said. “It has been really fun.”
Mueller said she’s happy to have Nahorny as part of her team and as a friend, calling her a great leader and someone who is always willing to help others however she can.
“Erin is a very strong gal, but very warm as well. She can read people very well …” Mueller said. “She is so giving, doesn’t hesitate to just help whenever she’s needed. She’s very positive.”
When looking back, Nahorny sometimes has trouble talking about what she has helped accomplish. She is adamant that the foundation’s creation, success and legacy are a result of a community that came together and cares. She’s just happy to have had a hand in it, stressing the importance of collaboration and never giving up hope in even the most difficult situations.
“You never know what tomorrow brings, so it is so important to try and be present, live in the moment and enjoy the little things … (Cancer) has given us the opportunity to see the best in people and to watch how this community rallies to support its own,” she said.
“It makes me really emotional to think back on the outpouring of love and support we received after Sam was diagnosed. Also, we have met some of the best people we know along this journey who have blessed our lives in countless ways.”
Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at email@example.com.