Jonny Imerman: Guardian Angel

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014 - 3:30pm

Passionate. Team player. People lover. Jonny Imerman is the Chief Mission Officer of Imerman Angels, a Chicago-based organization that provides personalized matches between cancer fighters, caregivers and survivors and “Mentor Angels”, veterans of the same cancer experience trained to provide support during and after treatment.

It’s fitting that I interviewed Jonny on Valentine’s Day. While not quite a bleeding heart, he is a man with a mission. He’s made his namesake organization’s free, unique, peer-to-peer support his life’s work.

In 2001, at age 26, Jonny was diagnosed and began his battle with testicular cancer; he repeated this battle in 2002. Feeling scared and alone during his journey—knowing no survivors his age—he began talking with fellow cancer fighters in the hospital. Recognizing that other fighters and their caregivers also desired this support and connection, he created a grass-roots matching network with 200 mentor angels in 2003, and officially founded Imerman Angels in 2006.

The not-for-profit’s come a long way. Since 2006, it’s matched 10,000 people in over 65 countries. In 2013, 2,300 cancer fighters and caregivers were paired with angels. Boasting 6,000 volunteers—comprised of 80% survivors and 20% caregivers—the group tries to match people who live in the same city and can meet in person. If not, the mentor and fighter may Skype, phone, email, send instant messages or even snail mail. On average, four to eight pairs are created daily.

“We’re the psychosocial piece of the cancer world,” Jonny says. “Our mentors might be complete strangers but they care about you and want to see you beat this thing.”

Imerman Angels’ main core value is “Mission first, people first”. Jonny embodies that value. His lightning bolt of energy and constant smile are magnets, as friends and strangers gather spontaneously wherever he lands. Favorite local watering holes? Protein Bar, Equinox fitness clubs and the lakefront bicycle path, where he often runs.

Primarily a vegan, Jonny’s dream dinner party guests would include: Imerman Angels board members, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr.; any of the Dalai Lamas and rappers 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G.

Asked who would portray Jonny if a movie were made about his life, he quickly chose Andre Agassi. They share bald heads and both know how to play ball, which includes doing a lot of charitable work in the cancer world. And perhaps surprising for a man named a CNN Hero in 2012, Jonny describes himself as an “awful CEO”. In fact, he recently hired Hector Nuñez, the former Apple Michigan Avenue store Operations Manager, to serve as COO. “I’m a visionary,” Jonny says. “I see big, vast ideas but am terrible at details.”

Most of the organization’s nine employees are cancer survivors, and it runs on donations. Funding comes primarily from the Chicago Marathon (200 runners raised $250,000 in 2013) and the Blue & White Party (initial gala raised $130,000 last year), followed by fundraising events and individual donations. Other sponsors include Equinox, Genentech, the Imerman Cake Company, Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Rush University Medical Center.

You may wonder, if Jonny’s an angel, who’s the devil? True to form, Jonny replies, “I don’t believe in the devil. Everyone has some good in them. I believe every day we should try to be the best we can be.”

Call it the halo effect.

Contact Imerman Angels at 877.274.5539 or here.

suzannecohen's picture
Suzanne Cohen

Suzanne is a lifestyle and corporate writer who specializes in snappy copy and interviewing people. She's passionate about writing, social media, health and wellness, tennis and exploring our fair city.

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