By Kim Walter -- email@example.com
What started as an escape from reality has turned into a life-altering, cross-country journey for 44-year-old Johnny Warnshuis of Redding, Calif.
Warnshuis started his trek in California 15 months ago and plans to finish the more than 4,300-mile journey next month at Times Square in New York City. He started with Sandy, a rescue horse, and she has been with him the entire way. He also rides with Boog, who was donated to him in Oklahoma City.
The journey started when Warnshuis's mother came down with a rare disease called Guillan Barre Syndrome. After receiving a flu vaccination, she became paralyzed from the neck down. It wasn't until four different hospitals and many months later that she was properly diagnosed, as the disease only affects one to two people out of every 100,000. There is no known cure, and not even an official cause.
After his mother, Sally, was beginning to recover, Warnshuis had few options. He had no job or place to stay.
"So I just took off on my horse," he said on Wednesday during a stop in Toms Brook. Warnshuis originally set off on the Oregon Trail, but when he didn't find much luck elsewhere, he decided to ride across the country raising awareness for GBS.
Now, after leaving with only $40 in his pocket, he's made it to the East Coast and has a couple hundred miles left until he reaches New York. There, he will marry his fiance, Sherree Hogg, who he met on his way out of California. Hogg now runs the "Cowboy for a Cure" website and manages donations.
Warnshuis has several other foundations besides one tied to GBS listed on his site, and asks that people donate to whichever one they feel compelled to do so.
"All the foundations listed are there because of associated people who personally helped me," he said. For instance, Autism Awareness is listed because a family who let Warnshuis stay with them had a boy suffering from it. He also has the John Wayne Cancer Institute listed because he lost his father and sister to cancer.
"I'm not doing this to make money for myself," he said. "People have really been helping me out."
A lot of things have changed for Warnshuis since beginning his journey. Besides meeting his fiance, he has received multiple job offers with clinics and charities to continue raising awareness of GBS. He's had to completely rely on the kindness of strangers, like Rick Simonetti of Mount Jackson, who is currently hosting him.
"My faith in God and humanity has totally been restored," he said, adding that he had never been a religious person before starting the trip. "I have learned more in the past 15 months than I have in the first 44 years of my life. I've got a lot of hopes and dreams that I never had before."
Besides continuing in his charity work, Warnshuit plans to write a book about his experience when it's over.
"You know, people can't help if they don't know," he said. "Awareness used to be a joke to me ... I didn't really care. But now I believe that awareness is knowledge, and knowledge is strength."
A meet and greet will take place with Warnshuit at Simonetti's home, 4575 Conicville Road, Mount Jackson, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday. The cowboy will be in Strasburg the same day and in Winchester on Friday. Hel then will head out to West Virginia at the beginning of next week. For more information about talking with Warnshuis and learning about his mission, call Simonetti at 540-481-0550 or check out the website: www.cowboyforacure.com.