When Jenn Junk , Executive Director of Recovery On Water – ROW for short, walked out of the doors of her corporate job and onto a boat where she’d spend nearly three months, she knew that she was doing something important. But as she circled Lake Michigan, she realized just how truly life changing the fundraising trip was to her and her fledgling non-profit.
Junk’s trip and the non-profit it would grow was inspired by a combination of things – a pinch of insanity, passion for giving back and the knowledge that exercise reduces breast cancer recurrence.
Near East Lansing where Junk rowed crew with Michigan State University more than 10 years ago, Junk volunteered with an organization called We Can Row that brought rowing to breast cancer survivors. After moving to Chicago, Junk longed for a way to continue helping survivors in Chicago that same way.
Junk pitched the idea to the administration at St. Ignatius Prep where she was a crew team coach and ROW was born.
The organization made tremendous strides from its origins in a high school, but it was the act of getting onto a 19-foot boat to travel around the lake that ignited that growth. To hear Junk tell it, it really just seemed like the most logical choice at the time.
“In 2012, I decided to row a boat around Lake Michigan and raise funds for ROW, largely because we didn’t have the equipment that we needed,” she said. “I should have picked a sport that was less expensive. Rowing is a really expensive sport – boats cost like $30,000. “
But Junk didn’t want just one boat. She wanted a fleet and needed $150K to buy it along with all of the equipment to maintain that fleet.
Junk started researching and realized that she could combine her newfound love of endurance sports as a marathoner with rowing. Other rowers across the world were taking lengthy trips across channels, lakes or oceans, sometimes lasting months.
Junk started googling, she recalled, and found that no one was on record rowing around Lake Michigan. She purchased a boat that she said had been across the Atlantic a couple of times and prepared for her journey.
“I lived on Lake Michigan for two and a half months in the boat and I raised about $170,000 for ROW,” she explained.
Outside of inspiring her to build the organization as her full-time job rather than as a side-project, Junk also found inspiration to live more simply.
“I lived on a boat and every single day, I had all of the things that I needed on a 19-foot boat,” she recalled.
That simple lifestyle helped her to realize that she was ready to make a financial leap as well as a career leap with ROW.
“I told the board that I was committed to making ROW a professional commitment and I knew they couldn’t pay me,” she said. “It would take three months to get it started and then hopefully they could pay me some kind of salary in the coming year. That was in 2012 and I’ve been the full-time Executive Director ever since. I’m still eating and paying rent.”
Since that journey in 2012 – both physical and emotional for Junk – ROW grew to a team of three full-time employees and 10 part-time coaches that serve women seven days a week with free workout programs tailored to breast cancer survivors.
Junk is proud to have created a sort of team and support system that helps after a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer.
“After a diagnosis – you go through the process and you’ve mourned it and you need to have this new identity,” she said.
But after diagnosis and treatment, ROW provides survivors “a group that they can go to and they can feel normal at. They can exercise without a prosthetic breast or they can do whatever they want,” Junk said.