Not the Life You Imagined

Luke’s breath becomes shorter, heavier. His foot tests the next hold, tentatively, and then drops back. Fingers feel like slipping. “I’m ready to come down,” he says. 

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Photo by Hailey Sadler

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Photo by Hailey Sadler

“It’s okay, take a minute,” coaches Jim. His voice is calm, encouraging. “Take a breath. Think about your next move. Where can you put your hand next? And what about after that? Focus on that. It’s all about your mind. Okay, breathe. You ready? Okay, make your next move. One at a time.”

Luke pushes on. His fingers find the next hold, and then the next one, ascending much higher than where he originally contemplated giving up.

It’s a dance. Encouraging, coaching, pushing one moment, listening and letting Luke know his limits the next. A balance between, “One more move, you’ve got this!” and “Okay, buddy, let’s come down. You did great.” 

Jim’s eyes are locked on Luke, reading his body language, watching the cues, knowing when to gently push and when to simply cheer. Luke looks down at Jim with a proud and excited smile.

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Photo by Hailey Sadler

This is not Luke’s first climb, and at first glance, you’d never know the boy perched confidently on the wall has battled cancer. 

When most six-year-old kids are busy playing baseball or meeting at the park for playdates, Luke was undergoing chemotherapy treatments at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. At the age of four, he was diagnosed with Leukemia (ALL, B-cell). 

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Photos by Hailey Sadler

“We had noticed some bruising on his arms, and our nanny who we're very close with said, ‘You really have to take him to the pediatrician tomorrow to get checked out,’” explains Luke’s mom, Melissa Iorio. After a series of tests, the Iorios received the call no parent expects: “Luke has leukemia; you need to go to the emergency room.”

Leukemia is the most common cancer in children and teens, accounting for almost one out of three cancers. Overall, however, childhood leukemia is a rare disease. 

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Photo by Hailey Sadler

Melissa vividly recalls the events that followed: It was five o'clock at night. She and her husband immediately took Luke to the hospital, but it was early the next morning before he was finally admitted. 

“The nurse is settling us into the room, and she's giving us this big packet of, ‘This is what you need to know when your kid has cancer'... It's now 3 o’clock in the morning.” In that moment, Melissa was shell-shocked and exhausted, but the nurse’s next words remain with her today: "This is going to be really hard, but you're going to meet some incredible people."  

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Photo by Hailey Sadler

Melissa flips through their family photo book, revealing pictures of a fragile, earnest young boy, a physical contrast to the Luke that stands tall and strong today. She remembers those early days – the fears, the worries, the uncertainty. But also, something more. The sense of purpose.

“I remember the first week Jon and I got out of the hospital. We just went to get coffee, and we both were like, ‘Yeah, that's suppose to happen,’ like we just knew it was. And we just knew there was a greater meaning to it.”

An Unexpected Bond

Shortly after Luke’s diagnosis, the Iorio family learned about One Summit, an organization that pairs pediatric cancer patients with Navy SEALs and empowers them to build resilience and overcome adversity through rock climbing, relationship building, and storytelling. While they were excited to get involved, Melissa admits she wasn’t sure how Luke would manage the physical component: “I didn’t think he could actually climb a wall,” she says.

Luke met Jim for the first time at this very site for One Summit’s annual Boston Climb for Courage in 2017. The organization also hosts a Climb for Courage in New York City and San Diego. At the time, Jim was serving as an Active Duty Navy SEAL. A friend told him about One Summit, and his interest was immediately piqued. 

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Photos by Hailey Sadler

Today, Jim looks to be in his element, but this was not always the case. As Jim helps Luke with his harness, a practice shared many times, he describes their first encounter. “I was really nervous. I didn't know what to expect.”

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Photo by Hailey Sadler

Melissa recalls Luke’s apprehension as well: “He didn't want me to leave, he didn't want to go upstairs, so Jim came downstairs.” The two bonded over a mutual love of dogs and talked lego creations. And just like that, a connection was formed, trust was built. Soon enough, Jim coaxed Luke to the rock wall, and the two mounted their first climb. 

“We went up halfway. We didn't talk about anything, just kept climbing.” Little by little, Jim spurred Luke to higher summits, encouraging him to climb a little further each time. The two climbed together for nearly three hours, but at the end of the day, Luke still had not reached the top. 

After the closeout ceremony, Luke approached Jim: "I want to do it one more time.” Luke and Jim got harnessed in and tackled the same route with renewed determination. “It was one of those legendary moments where you remember it like a movie. I got more courage to tell Luke to get a little higher and higher. Out of nowhere Luke just says, ‘I'm going to smoke you man.’” 

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Photo by Hailey Sadler

Everyone in the room gathered around as the two continued their final climb of the day. Luke made it two rungs from the top, looked down, and the fear set in. "I want to come down," he said. Jim paused and waited, giving Luke the space to work out his fear. The then-six-year-old boy held onto the bar for a span of seconds that felt like minutes before turning to Jim with a nonchalant reply: "Nah, I'm going to keep going."  

“He found his inner spirit," recalls Jim, "just another level, like a reservoir of extra stuff he didn't realize he had, and he went to the top. I went berserk, I couldn't believe it, but then everybody just burst in this eruption of cheer and excitement.”

“You have to see it to believe it. There's some kind of magic to it.”

Jim says that was the moment he became a believer. He realized this shared experience was something special, something bigger than a rock wall or climbing adventure. “You have to see it to believe it,” says Jim. “There's some kind of magic to it.”

Luke’s dad, Jon, describes that moment as a turning point for his son: “I remember after the climb, we were at a playground and Luke was doing things he never would have done before the climb, and I sent Jim a message. It just showed me this isn't just about this one day; we're going to build on this.” 

Luke’s parents were astonished by the rapid changes they observed in their son. “Luke's a super active kid now, but up until that point, because he was really sick, we didn't know that,” explains Melissa.

The Iorio home emanates warmth and love. Even in the wake of trauma and hardship, there is a sweetness that ties this family together. Jim and his wife Claire have become part of that family.

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Hailey Sadler

Photographer

“He was in the hospital a lot and still going through treatment but made so many strides during that first climb,” continues Jon. “Then he really developed a love for rock climbing and just being really active in general.” 

When asked how it feels to scale to the top of the wall, Luke’s answers enthusiastically, “It feels awesome!”

“It takes them out of the hospital cancer world, just to be normal.”

Melissa explains that this feeling of accomplishment is particularly meaningful for pediatric cancer patients. “A lot of kids that are on treatment, they go through obviously awful things on a regular basis,” she says, “but none of this is really a choice, right? You don't have a choice to get a lumbar puncture. They’re just doing this all TO you. Most of the kids can't really be on sports teams, and a lot of them are not in school regularly… I think this type of push is really healthy, and not something that they actually get. It takes them out of the hospital cancer world, just to be normal. But also to accomplish something that's really great.”

Growing Through Trauma

Started in 2007 by Adam La Reau, a former Navy SEAL, One Summit uses a unique approach to build resilience in kids (ages 6-20) battling cancer. The organization has reached over 300 kids and 200 Navy SEALs through experiential learning. 

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Photo by Hailey Sadler

When Adam first pitched this idea, it was met with some skepticism: "You want to introduce more adversity to a population that is already dealing with adversity?" was one response. The idea of using adversity to overcome trauma is not necessarily an intuitive one, but it is effective.

The field of post-traumatic growth research has shown that when given the right tools and a mission into which people can channel their fears and anxieties, they can find new meaning and experience growth through their trauma. And as they gain confidence in one area, it translates into other areas of life. 

"People develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have and a better understanding of how to live life."

Richard Tedeschi, PhDProfessor Emeritus of PsychologyUniversity of North Carolina at Charlotte

No stranger to trauma, Adam knows first-hand that overcoming adversity can give you the strength to face other challenges. In 2004, Adam lost his mother to cancer. She was only 58, and he found out while serving in Iraq. “In the end, it was her body that gave up,” says Adam, “not her mind. I am still inspired by her strength as well as the strength of the men I served with on the SEAL teams.” 

Adam did not launch One Summit as just another mentor or military program. He believed that everyone goes through struggles and battles in life, but it’s how you choose to overcome that makes the difference.

“We do our teaching on the wall,” explains Adam. The goal is to have the mentees face the physical and mental challenge and then recognize they can push through that challenge. “Climbing a mountain is what comes to mind when I think of overcoming challenges and pushing people outside their comfort zone," continues Adam. "That is what rock climbing does.” 

One Summit pairs like-minded warriors -- Navy SEALS and pediatric cancer patients. Through rock climbing challenges and a 1:1 mentor match, kids facing cancer learn teamwork, goal-setting, and resilience.

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Hailey Sadler

Photographer

One Summit participants receive lessons in resilience. They then utilize their inner and physical strength to climb. This is why the partnership with Navy SEALs works so well, because as Jim points out, this ethos of perseverance is inherent in the SEALs community.

“I will never quit. I persevere and thrive on adversity... If knocked down, I will get back up, every time. I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to protect my teammates and to accomplish our mission. I am never out of the fight."

Excerpt from the SEAL CreedU.S. Navy

SEALs like Jim bring this spirit of courage and determination to the rock wall and to life. “Suffering begets great achievement and breeds success,” says Jim. “You really cannot get that fulfillment or that true accomplishment unless you go through the crucible.”

One Summit was founded on the belief that trauma does not have to mean defeat. Rather, it can be a perfect opportunity for growth and a catalyst to move lives forward in unexpected ways. Trauma is a part of what brings people together, in this case, Jim and Luke. There is no solution or fix for trauma, but there can be growth from it.  

Executive Director Dianne Lynch explains how storytelling can help people process and make sense of their experiences. “Reflection and expression are among the tools that help lead to post-traumatic growth, so One Summit collaborates with its mentors/mentees to help them reflect on and share their stories.” 

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Luke talks with One Summit's Senior Manager of Communications and Development, Greg Doyle, about his journey to this point and holds up one of his recent drawings. / Photos by Hailey Sadler

Luke points out one of his favorite legos – the Millennium Falcon. “It’s a mini version,” he clarifies. While some might associate hospital stays with shots injected, surgeries performed, or treatments administered, Luke remembers which legos he built during his stays. As Luke shares, it is striking how normal these experiences are for him, and how positive his perspective is. “The hospital was just really fun. Like, if you thought of it as no shots or anything, then everyone would want to go there.”

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Photo by Hailey Sadler

As Luke looks back at photos of his past experiences, he doesn’t point out the obvious. Instead, he notices the little details, the minutiae that make those moments real to him. When asked about attending the 2018 Boston Marathon to support Jim, who was running on behalf of One Summit, Luke recalls the hot dogs (a favorite food, second only to pizza) and posters he made. Jim remembers the pouring rain and freezing temps. All twenty-six miles of it.

Luke shares some of his artwork – a drawing of spiderman. “Now I’m working on the New York buildings,” he says, “if they could talk and if they had faces.” Luke expresses himself through art, another avenue for him to process his experiences, hopes, and imagination.

Journaling, drawing, and talking through personal experiences all serve as tools that empower kids to grow through trauma, offering a new lens through which to view and process their stories.

A Lifelong Friendship

Luke stands with his hands on his hips. Jim’s arms are folded, one hand outstretched, pointing towards the other climbers. 

“See what he’s doing there? He’s created a game plan in his mind first, and now he’s executing it. He already knows where each hand is going to go,” Jim explains. 

“Yeah I see,” says Luke. He nods with this knowing air of a seasoned expert.

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Photo by Hailey Sadler

Jim treats Luke with a genuine respect, and it is reflected in the way Luke responds. They’re mentor and mentee, coach and student, but also best bud, co-conspirators, good friends. There’s a comfort level between them, a knowing. 

Luke’s and Jim’s relationship extends well beyond the rock wall. After the Climb for Courage linked these two together, they continued texting, Facetiming, and sharing their lives with one another. 

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Photos by Hailey Sadler

For Luke’s birthday, Jim sent him a Patagonia jacket. “He still wears it,” says Melissa. “He loves it. One time, he thought he lost it, and he was so upset because he was like, ‘Jim gave it to me.’”

A fourth generation military veteran, Jim grew up in a family of accomplished service members, which was not always easy. After graduating in 2007, he took a job in finance for a year, but says, “I hated it after two weeks.” He soon left the job and joined the Navy. “The Navy is a family business. My dad, my grandfather, great grandfather, aunts, uncles, now cousins; everyone's gone to the Naval Academy pretty much.”  

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Photo by Hailey Sadler

After serving his country abroad, Jim also wanted to get involved in community service. “I just wanted to do something more homebound,” he says. When Jim was first introduced to One Summit, he says it was like, ‘This is it!’” But even then, he never anticipated the full impact the experience would have on him. 

“It's been a great outlet with exponential benefits to it,” he says. “For me, it's provided a benchmark, like a reference poll, to sort of check my own struggles against.” 

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Photo by Hailey Sadler

Jim’s wife, Claire, has been there through it all. “Jim is a very stoic person and has always been good at battling and overcoming obstacles in his way.” But being able to use his skills and training to help others has helped him process many of his own experiences.

“It's given me this platform to have some self-confidence and pride in my accomplishments, and think through, ‘Okay, well what exactly do I have here?’” 

In the beginning, Jim admits that he wasn’t sure he had much to bring to the table. But over time, he has seen the way his own knowledge, learning, and experiences apply to his relationship with Luke. As he coaches him up the wall, it comes almost second nature. 

“It allows me to appreciate the tools that I've been trained in, or have been able to innately bring forward in myself, to achieve what I have, and to then use them with Luke.”

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Jim asks Luke how long he is going to hang from the bar. "10 seconds," answers Luke. With a little coaching, Luke hangs for 11 seconds. / Photos by Hailey Sadler

Jim is quick to point out that everyone fights a unique battle, and he can never fully comprehend what it is like to have cancer, but he can be there. He can be another support, another coach, another man in Luke’s corner. 

“I don't understand his struggles, and what was in his head, his battle,” says Jim. “Nor do I really understand probably what he thinks, and what his struggles are now. But it's a lifelong friendship.”

This friendship has helped Jim adjust to changes in his life. He retired from Active Duty just last year, and now he and his wife Claire have re-located to Boston, bringing him closer to Luke and the Iorio family. 

Stronger Together

For Executive Director Dianne Lynch, post-traumatic growth is more than an idea; it is personal. In 2003, she took a professional leave from a previous job to focus on the care of her then 20-month-old son, Jack, when he was diagnosed with stage IV neuroblastoma. After three years of treatment, Jack lost his valiant battle against cancer. Four months after his passing, Dianne faced her own cancer diagnosis. 

As a mother of two young boys, she underwent treatment for breast cancer at Mass General Hospital. When her health stabilized she chose to apply her experience in the non-profit industry, focused on cancer-related programs, pediatrics, and families. She learned a lot about how to help kids and families heal and grow through their diagnosis.

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Photo by Hailey Sadler

“When you think about a cancer diagnosis, your family is part of your team, your doctors, your child life specialists, they are all part of your team,” says Dianne. “The only way that you could be successful in getting through adversity and trauma is by having a strong team.”

This is exactly what One Summit does – brings along a strong community to help support kids and families through their difficult experiences.  

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Photo by Hailey Sadler

Luke’s mom, Melissa, explains that One Summit has not only been a lifeline for Luke, but for his younger brother Matty as well. Siblings are included in all the rock climbing and community events (such as baseball games), and Jim has become a friend and mentor to both boys. As the three run around playing laser tag together, it is clear that both Matty and Luke look up to Jim.

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As Luke, Matty, and Jim play laser tag, there is a natural ease between the three. The unique bond, deep trust, and lasting relationships built through the One Summit experience extend to the entire family.

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Hailey Sadler

Photographer

Much like Luke, Matty embarks on his first climb up the rock wall with Jim securing the ropes. Matty starts out tentative and nervous, but gains confidence as he climbs. As he reaches higher elevations, he hesitates, ready to give up, but Jim coaches him further. 

Below, his older brother Luke and parents all cheer him on. Eventually, Matty reaches the top, and they all erupt in applause. The shared camaraderie between brothers is evident and shared with their family and Jim.

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Photos by Hailey Sadler

That hospital nurse's words have certainly proven true: The journey hasn't been easy, but the Iorios have met some incredible people. Jim and his wife Claire have become part of the family. And Dianne, Greg, Adam, and so many others with One Summit are their supportive community. 

The Iorios are now focused on using their experiences to give back. Last year, Luke had the idea to host a fundraiser and raised several hundred dollars for One Summit. He also introduced other kids to his love for rock-climbing and showed them that overcoming physical challenges can help make you a stronger person. 

As his mom shares this story, Luke interrupts: “Wait, Mom. The party that we’re going to do for end of school… it should be a fundraiser.”

“Let’s do it,” replies Melissa. 

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Photo by Hailey Sadler

She doesn’t even hesitate because this is part of their family ethos, part of the One Summit spirit. “We want to teach families that yes, this is horrible and if we had an opportunity to make this not be the situation, we would,” says Melissa. “We’re dealt this hand, but we have a choice. We can take a few paths. We can protect and hunker down and kind of survive or we can say, ‘You know what, this is a reality, but I'm going to lean into it, and I'm going to rock climb or see a Red Sox game. I'm going to sign up for these things and figure out how to be there.’"

By leaning in, families like the Iorios find community, growth, courage, and a deeper meaning in the journey they walk. They also discover a resilience they never knew they had.

“I’m thinking of starting my own pizza shop,” says Luke. “Pizza by Luke.” 

For this young boy, and so many other One Summit participants, the future is not defined by limitations, but rather by opportunities – a truth that applies both on and off the rock wall.

Photo by Hailey Sadler

Editor's Note

"I will never quit. I will get back up, every time. I am never out of the fight."

One Summit, thank you for the important work you do – for stepping into the middle of fear, hardship, and trauma, empowering kids to build resilience and continue in their brave fight; for bringing together like-minded warriors to discover purpose in their own stories; and for building a supportive community – a band of brothers, sisters, moms and dads, friends, and mentors all in this journey together.

To Luke, Jim, Melissa, Jon, and Matty: Thank you for entrusting us with your story. You are everyday heroes, inspiring us all with your courage and resilience, your warmth and kindness, your never giving up. You have gone through the crucible and come out stronger on the other side. Today, you impact so many through your story, and we are grateful.

Film credit: Beryllium Pictures


Amanda
Amanda Sig

Amanda Lahr

Editor, Bittersweet Monthly

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Amanda Lahr

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