Two years ago I wrote a column that was inspired by a conversation I had with physical therapist John Kwon, owner of Core Performance in Newport Beach and Irvine.
John, a terrific guy who has treated me twice in the past several years, had told me the tragic-yet-heartwarming story of his friend, Alex Cho, who had died of stomach cancer in 2012 at age 36.
He described Alex as a deeply loyal and generous friend with an exuberant, magnetic personality. Alex lived his abbreviated life so passionately that after his passing a group of his friends continued to meet every year on the anniversary of his death to reminisce and bond over their shared grief, and to spend time with Alex’s parents at their home in the Reno area.
“In Korean culture, the first year after you lose a loved one everyone gathers,” said Tony Cho, an Irvine-based primary care doctor and Alex’s younger brother. “But every year it was, ‘See you next year.’ By the fifth year, a couple of guys said we should try to do something more to honor him and carry on his legacy.”
They decided that the best way to honor Alex’s memory would be to start a charitable organization in his name.
Now, two years later, that nonprofit, the Alex Cho Foundation, is finally up and running.
Getting to this point wasn’t easy.
First, there was a steep learning curve. The group is comprised of several busy, accomplished professionals, including lawyers, a physician and successful business people — smart men with strong opinions but without any prior experience in the nonprofit realm.
Though they care for and respect each other, they would sometimes butt heads over the best way to proceed.
“I’m not going to lie — The past year has been kind of difficult,” said Tony, who currently serves as the foundation’s president. “The learning experience this year was trying to figure out how to focus our efforts and get on the same page.”
Many decisions had to be made, and tasks delegated. A firm with experience managing nonprofits was hired, a website was launched, and a logo using the image of Alex’s beloved dog, Hugo, was designed.
Fundraising events were organized, and donations were solicited from the group’s wide array of contacts. And, perhaps most important, the group had to figure out exactly what would be the charity’s mission.
As time went on, that mission finally became clear: They would carry on Alex’s legacy by providing financial support to families impacted by cancer.
The foundation has now located its first beneficiary, the family of a nurse — a mother to two young children — who is stricken with Stage 4 lung cancer. Her husband, a church pastor, had put his work on hold to help care for his wife, and though he was initially reluctant to accept help eventually he was persuaded.
The group hopes to continue growing with more and bigger fundraising efforts — a golf benefit is one floated idea — and by looking for ways to provide assistance to other families in need.
“Long term, we want to help as many people as we can,” said John.
Another idea that Tony has proposed is to produce tribute videos for families of those suffering from cancer — something he wishes he’d done while Alex was still alive.
Though just a year older, Alex was very much the protective big brother, Tony said.
“He always had my back,” Tony said. “We had different personalities but we were always close. He was more a leader type. He lived life to the fullest. I was the quiet, introverted type.”
Alex’s courageous battle after his devastating diagnosis was a powerful testament to the kind of person he was, Tony said. Initially told by his doctors that he likely had just a few weeks to live, he managed to hang on for several more months.
“He told me, ‘Mom’s not ready. I need to keep going,’” Tony recalled.
So Alex endured the painful, life-extending treatments for as long as he could, receiving nourishment through a tube and having fluid continually drained from his lungs.
“He didn’t have to suffer through all that,” his brother said.
Now Alex’s loved ones are forging ahead, determined to see through on their commitment to making the foundation as impactful as possible.
“We learned about each other” through the process of getting the charity off the ground, John said. “Through the struggle, I’ve gotten to be closer to these guys.”
And this loyal group of friends, initially bound by their shared grief, remain steadfast to their single guiding principle, which comes down to, as Tony said, “What would Alex want us to do?”
The answer for him is simple: Alex would want to help others. So that’s just what Tony, John and the other founding members of their fledgling charitable enterprise are determined to keep doing.