As a cancer survivor, Emory senior and Kenneth Cole Fellow Christopher M. Richardson understands how people in terrible situations can feel demoralized and believe their problems to be insurmountable.

In June 1996, when he was a fifteen-year-old high school sophomore in Charleston, South Carolina, Richardson was diagnosed with bone cancer. A tumor had spread through most of his right leg, destroying his kneecap. Cancerous cells also were discovered in his lung, a small portion of which was removed. He underwent experimental treatments and intensive chemotherapy. He lost the ability to speak because his tongue was swollen. His left leg broke due to calcium deficiency.

Richardson was told that he had about five years to live.

“I had to come to a choice. If I was going to die, I’d do it on my own terms,” says Richardson, who speaks with a calm, measured determination. “I’d been spending a lot of time sitting in bed moping. But I decided to put on my clothes, go out and meet other patients and kids. It was the right thing to do, it made me feel good, and it helped improve my spirits, even though those were harsh and brutal times.”

With physical therapy, Richardson learned to use his legs again, and went from wheelchair to walker to crutches to cane. “You have to have the drive and determination to improve yourself,” he says.

As part of the inaugural class of Kenneth Cole fellows, Richardson was able to bring that understanding–and determination–into his work with the community. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood that faced issues of gentrification and race, he has long been interested in learning about the nature of poverty and why certain neighborhoods are in such disrepair.

“I took a lot of pride and joy in doing this job,” says Richardson, whose Cole fellowship project involved preserving affordable housing. “I felt an affinity with the residents we were setting out to help.”

Through “windshield” surveys of some of the nine thousand small, multi-family housing units in Atlanta, Richardson and other Cole fellows evaluated the units’ conditions, rating them as standard, sub-standard, dilapidated, and deteriorated. The resulting inventory and assessment will be used to improve these units and maintain their affordability, says Maxwell Creighton, executive director of the Community Design Center of Atlanta.

“Improving things takes time,” Richardson says. “These problems took decades to create, and will take decades to solve. But every brick we lay sets the foundation for something greater.”

As president of Emory’s Student Government Association and a political science and history major, Richardson knows the value of working within the system to affect change.

He’ll soon be applying to law schools, and plans to provide legal help to low-income residents who have cancer. Richardson was named a 2002 Truman Scholar, which prepares students for careers in government or public service and will provide $30,000 toward his tuition.

Although he’s been in remission for six years, Richardson still volunteers for the American Cancer Society. “My illness,” he says, “made me much more willing to be idealistic, to have a vision and go out there and try to do something great.”–M.J.L.



© 2003 Emory University