It’s a rare joy when we encounter someone who not only chooses to walk with us in life, but lights up the world with every step. When Michael Allio met Laura, it didn’t take him long to realize he’d been lucky enough to encounter a true gem of a human, and he speaks of her with fitting reverence. “She was beautiful inside and out and I remember the first time I met her, I was just completely drawn to her smile, her outlook on life, her energy. She was the smartest person I’ve ever met. She wasn’t that type of person that knew she was smart and made you feel small because of it. She did everything in a very humble and very confident way, but always took time to make fun of herself. She loved getting a rise out of people. She was extremely philanthropic, loving, caring, and organized,” Michael recalls of his college sweetheart, smiling softly. The couple tied the knot in 2012 and began planning their life together.
What really set Laura’s soul on fire was giving back to the community, particularly those impacted by diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer. Following a relocation to Michael’s hometown of Akron, it didn’t take long for one local organization to capture Laura’s heart: Stewart’s Caring Place, which supports cancer patients as they face down the daunting myriad of questions that inevitably follow a cancer diagnosis. As Michael explains: “It’s this beautiful resource in Akron and, honestly, there should be one in every single city. What Stewart’s does is it provides free necessary services to help ease the pain that goes along with the cancer diagnosis and that just doesn’t affect the patient, that affects the caregivers, that affects the children, it affects this whole ecosystem. If you do get a cancer diagnosis, the first thing is that you’re overwhelmed, you’re worried about what’s the actual diagnosis? What does it mean? How do I build my healthcare team? But then it’s also what do I do for scheduling? How do I get time off work? Who’s going to take me to these appointments? Are there alternative and additive therapies like holistic approaches that I can do, diet? All of these different things and guess what? They all cost money. And guess what? Not everybody has access to that same amount of resources but everybody deserves healthcare. It is a human right. The last thing people should have to go through when they get a diagnosis is, ‘Oh my God. How am I going to pay for this?’ They’re fighting for their lives, they should not be impacted whatsoever. Stewart’s Caring Place is one of many different places across the country that does provide that hub and spoke model, that resource center where people can go in, get fitted for wigs, made to feel beautiful even when their bodies are changing and find a way to hold onto who they are as a person during this time when everything around them seems to be changing.”
Laura’s dedication to cancer organizations became tragically ironic when she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, a discovery that may not have occurred without the help of their infant son, James. “We credit James for finding Laura’s cancer because he actually stopped taking breast milk from one side of the breast,” Michael reveals. “That’s actually what drew the alarms for us to go get it checked out. We went to an OBGYN and she kind of dismissed it as plugged milk duct, which is a typical thing. We didn’t like that answer per se and wanted something more definitive, so we started actually pursuing additional treatment and an additional opinion, which eventually turned into a breast cancer diagnosis.” In a twist of fate, Laura soon found herself relying on the services of the same organizations she had selflessly devoted her time to. “When we moved back to Akron, Laura and I started volunteering at Stewart’s Caring Place and when we first started, we didn’t even really know what they did. We were just working some events, helping with some fundraising and then, literally, two and a half years later, we became very dependent on the services that they provide. It’s just this full circle of how we give back even when we don’t need it because we never know when we will and even if we never do, people do rely on these types of things. ”
Laura was determined not to suffer in silence, instead utilizing social media to show the trials and tribulations of grappling with a cancer diagnosis as a woman in the midst of starting a family. “Laura, from an advocacy perspective, was very vocal about kind of removing that veil of secrecy and privacy on what it’s like to be a newly married wife, a new mother, and a young mother going through a cancer diagnosis so she really didn’t make it look glamorous, which oftentimes [with] social media you go on there and you can’t help but be like, ‘Oh my God, why is everybody living these amazing lives on the beach and in thousand dollar suits here? She kind of made it very human and took people to videos [and] gave a lot of information and educational talks and broadcasted them on Facebook Live and other social media outlets so that if people did not have their support in the community around them that we were so lucky to have, that they could at least tune into her and she would help guide them through their own cancer journey based on just her own experience.” Watching Laura’s fight also prompted Michael to reevaluate his own approach to adversity. “I think in my own experience, when I put myself at the center of my work, every single problem I have is magnified because all I’m focusing on is myself. When I put others at the center of my world, whether or not it’s my son or wife, Laura, or it’s a cause that I deeply care about, I gain perspective, and my little problems that we all struggle with, they calibrate and they go down to actually what they are, which is small little details in the scheme of life.”
What followed was nothing short of a medical odyssey as the Allios travelled cross country, city to city, doctor to doctor, desperately searching for a cure. Despite their Herculean efforts, Laura passed away in January 2019 at the age of 33. The vacuum of her loss was immeasurable and persists into the present. “It’s the adjustment that I’m making now in my life, not having companionship and not having that person, like Laura, around the house that you really start to recognize real quickly all the things that they did, not just around the house and the admin, but just the whole aura and vibe of your house. It all changes and everything’s a little quieter after you lose somebody and it’s a little eerie and creepy and then you start to get used to the new normal and you start to make sense of it and you just try to build and progress at a speed that makes sense for your own self.“ Over the ensuing years, Michael has found that devastation has given way to appreciation for the time he had with Laura, no matter how brief or bittersweet. “The transition is, at first, painful and you look at the relationship that you had, or that I had with Laura, and it just feels painful because it’s no longer there, it’s no longer present, but now it’s starting to feel more like happiness and gratefulness that I had someone in my life that I just miss so much and there’s always this quote that grief is love that has no place to go. ”
But even in the depths of despair, hope springs eternal. Michael vowed that while cancer may have taken Laura’s life, it would never extinguish her light. Through his grief, he remained committed to picking up Laura’s advocacy where she left off, focusing on the cancer community that had given them such strength and love in their greatest hour of need. Michael soon founded The L4 Project, which operates under a simple, concise mantra: live life like Laura. “What L4 does is we raise money for cancer, 501(c)(3) cancer services that provide these vital resources to patients, to caregivers, to family members that don’t necessarily know where to go. The idea with this project is really to keep Laura’s legacy of philanthropy alive. She was such an advocate for the cancer community and by selling clothing online, we can help create awareness while also raising money and trying to find a way to do our small part in something very big,” Michael explains. L4 endeavors to address the emotional and financial impacts of cancer from every angle. “A cancer diagnosis, it’s multifaceted. There’s the emotional elements of it, physical components, it’s this overwhelming sense that the clock is ticking and you’re scrambling for resources, you’re scrambling to build your support team outside of a hospital, your medical team inside, you’re working. You could be a single parent and you’re the sole bread provider for the family, how do you work around your job schedule to facilitate all these treatments and surgeries and how do you concentrate on everything at the same time while raising a child? And then, on the other side of that, you have the caregivers. They’re often people that are left in the shadows, they’re the silent heroes of this whole thing and they don’t ask for anything but it doesn’t mean they don’t need anything. Hopefully, the cancer is cured and you don’t have to worry about that but all too often, it’s not and then you have grief support and then you have follow up and how does this impact children or spouses or parents after losing a husband or wife or a child? There are all of these different components and it could be, like I said before, the transportation, the resources, holistic therapy, all of these different things that just cost money and not everybody has access to, to try to give them access.”
Supporting L4 is easy and more vital than ever in the wake of the pandemic. “You can go online and go to L4Project.com. There you can buy merchandise and all of the profits for the sale of those pieces do go to charities. Actually the money that’s created on L4 Project, because L4 Project is actually an LLC, that money goes up to the Akron Community Foundation, which is a 501(c)(3). It’s managed there and dispersed through that vehicle,” Michael says. Most recently, they’ve teamed up with Akron Children’s Hospital to benefit pediatric patients. “We actually just launched an awesome collaboration with Akron Children’s Hospital Showers Family Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders. During COVID, you imagine how COVID has impacted so many people, but think about kids with cancer. People can’t go and see them while they’re getting treatment. Everything is shut down. About a year and a half ago, our team at L4 went into Akron Children’s and we asked the kids, ‘Help us understand. What’s it like to be in your shoes?’ Not just creating the idea of something that is obvious and sad and something that they shouldn’t have to go through, but they created a bunch of artwork that we drew inspiration from. We actually created a style online called the sunrise T-shirt, and 100 percent of the proceeds of the sale of that T-shirt do go to Akron Children’s Hospital for pediatric cancer. It’s just kind of our way of acknowledging that there’s a lot of suffering in the world, but there’s a lot of hope in the world. When you actually look at the heart on these T-shirts, you can’t tell if it’s a sunrise or if it’s a sunset. You’re not sure if it’s a new day. You’re not sure if it’s possibly getting ready for grief, but that’s what we’re trying to understand. We’re trying to give these kids a voice, and we’re trying to raise money for a noble organization in the process.”
He hopes to honor Laura’s path even as he sometimes struggles to navigate the once unfathomable reality of life without her. “When somebody has actually made such an impact on your life and you’ve learned from them and you’ve adopted some of their beliefs and they go away, you feel a sense of obligation to carry them with you and continue their mission for them. Laura was just very much larger than life and taught me so much that it became difficult to differentiate her and he,” Michael admits. “You end up becoming somewhat of the same person when you have such a good relationship. What I’m trying to do is keep her spirit alive through this project, help cancer patients and the whole cancer community, as she would’ve if she was still here, give something that my son can hold onto and keep his mother close as time kind of creates that distance. Hopefully it turns out to be something great but I don’t put that pressure on myself either. I’m just trying and that’s good enough.“
James is, without question, Laura’s most cherished and lasting legacy. Michael finds himself continuously amazed by the echoes between his late wife and young son. “James looks just like her. He has so many of her mannerisms and everything, which honestly in hindsight, is such a gift because it’s almost as though he’s living through her and I can still see glimmers of her through him. It’s really this kind of beautiful life cycle, even though it’s very tragic that we lost someone so wonderful and beautiful too early.” His greatest wish for James is for him to carve out his own identity. “I think it’s really important that as a parent, you try to guide your children and infuse certain characteristics and morals and pillars into their life and give them exposure to as much as possible knowing that they are their own person and they need to come to their own truth. My goal always is not to turn James into a version of me or Laura, but rather share with him our life experiences and give him exposure to as much of the world as possible so that he can see the larger picture and come to his own conclusion, which I shouldn’t say conclusion because life never really has a conclusion and I don’t want it to. I’m always trying to pursue my truth, but I hope the things that I feel today aren’t necessarily how I feel if I’m blessed to live to an old age. I want to continually grow, maintain that curiosity, and some things with James, it’s really a lot of curiosity, compassion, work ethic, call to action, humility, and loyalty. Those types of things, I think, will, if I can teach him those, he’ll be able to choose a path that will be very, very fruitful and rewarding for himself.” Though single fatherhood can certainly be challenging and the future remains uncertain, Michael is propelled forward by his belief that all roads will eventually lead back to Laura. “I always feel as though I don’t doubt that I’m going to see her again. My big thing is to live life boldly and when I do see her again, we’ll just have a lot of great stories to talk about.” Until then, father and son will walk hand in hand, tackling life together one day at a time, doing their best to live life like Laura.
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The L4 Project: One Man’s Journey to Honor His Wife Through Uplifting the Cancer Community. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michael Allio.