When Meredith Emerson was living in Buford, she and her black Labrador retriever Ella enjoyed running and hiking the trails at the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center.
So it’s only fitting that the 223-acre park near the Mall of Georgia will be the setting for “Ella’s Run,” a 5K and one-mile fun run scheduled for Oct. 25.
The event is a fundraiser for Right to Hike Inc., a nonprofit organization established in Emerson’s memory.
Emerson, 24, was a Colorado native and avid hiker.
She disappeared Jan. 1 near Blood Mountain in Union County. Investigators soon determined that Emerson had been abducted by a drifter named Gary Michael Hilton, who killed her three days later in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area.
Hilton pleaded guilty in the Emerson case and is now suspected of murdering at least three other people in national forests in Florida and North Carolina. He was extradited to Florida in June.
Friends of Emerson formed Right to Hike because they wanted to remember the way she lived, not how she died.
The charity is raising money for three initiatives: purchasing GPS units to help rescuers locate lost hikers; offering microchip clinics for pet identification; and supporting a scholarship established in Emerson’s name by the University of Georgia, where she graduated with a degree in French.
The nonprofit’s first fundraiser took place June 25 through the “Dining to Donate” program at 40 metro Atlanta Applebee’s restaurants, including the Dawsonville location.
Customers could designate 15 percent of their bill toward the cause.
Julia Karrenbauer, Emerson’s former roommate and vice president of Right to Hike, said that first endeavor raised about $7,500. “We got great community support,” she said.
She hopes Ella’s Run will draw plenty of interest because the event is so evocative of Emerson’s own life and passions.
“Meredith and Ella would have definitely been among the first to register for something like this,” Karrenbauer said.
The Gwinnett park is an oasis of greenery surrounded by the retail sprawl of the Mall of Georgia, and it draws local residents who may not have time to drive to mountain trails for recreation.
“Almost all of our acreage is wooded,” said Danielle Wunn, marketing coordinator for the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center. “We have eight miles of trails, including a paved greenway and trails in the woods that are covered with gravel or mulch. We have cross-country teams that train out here, so it’s very runnable.”
The 5K route will follow both paved and forested trails, while the family friendly one-mile run will be entirely on the paved path.
The event is likely to attract dog lovers who tend to look for activities they can do with their pets.
“Dogs are more than welcome here,” said Wunn. “Of course, they should be on a leash, and their owners should pick up after them.”
One dog who will not be present for the event is Ella herself. Three days after Emerson’s disappearance, the young Lab was found wandering in a Kroger parking lot in Cumming, apparently having escaped from Hilton’s van. Her identity was confirmed because she had an implanted microchip.
Karrenbauer said Ella now lives with Emerson’s parents in Colorado and is doing well. Though Ella won’t be making an appearance at the 5K, the Gwinnett Humane Society will be on hand to offer microchipping at a reduced cost.
“We’ve also invited them to bring some of their adoptable pets,” said Karrenbauer.
Participants who arrive without dogs can even help exercise the adoptable pooches by walking them during the fun run.
Karrenbauer said Right to Hike is still seeking sponsors for Ella’s Run. The organization wants to be able to provide a free T-shirt to each participant and commemorative medals to those who raise more than $100.
At the end of November, Karrenbauer said, the group plans to give a progress report to its partners: UGA, Gwinnett Humane Society and the Georgia SPCA.
“At that time, we hope to donate the first set of (GPS location) pagers to Union County, so they can use them in search and rescue,” she said.
Right to Hike has one more event on its schedule: a memorial walk at Meeks Park in Blairsville, set for Jan. 17. That’s almost exactly a year after the first walk took place, when friends and relatives were still grieving over Emerson’s death.
The January 2007 event originally was planned as a hike on Blood Mountain, where Emerson was last seen. But icy weather and a lack of parking forced organizers to move it to Blairsville.
Despite bitterly cold temperatures, about 150 hikers showed up, many with their dogs. Most had never met Emerson, but they felt a personal connection to the woman whose vibrant life and shocking death had touched the hearts of everyone in North Georgia.
For female hikers, the walk also was a symbolic way to “take back the trail” and show that they refused to be terrorized by predators like Hilton.
Karrenbauer said that’s the reason the organization is called Right to Hike.
“Because everyone has a right to enjoy the outdoors without fear,” she said.