BUFORD — Meredith Hope Emerson and her black Labrador Ella spent many sun-splashed afternoons walking along the wilderness trails of the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center.
On Saturday, friends, family and hundreds of well-wishers gathered there to dedicate a trail in the name of Emerson, who in January was abducted and murdered at age 24 after hiking with her dog in Union County.
"This trail really means a lot to us, Meredith’s friends and coworkers and family," Emerson’s roommate of two years, Julia Karrenbauer, told those who gathered around a new trail marker for the dedication. "This is a place where people can come and remember her. I hope you will come out here again and really experience this beauty."
Prior to the trail dedication, more than 600 people and hundreds of dogs participated in the inaugural "Ella’s Run," a 5K race for humans and canines. The event raised money for Right to Hike, a nonprofit hiker safety organization founded by Emerson’s friends.
Fittingly, overall race winner T.J. Bultema completed the course with his brown pit bull mix Cucuy crossing the finish line with him.
"Being someone who spends a lot of time walking on trails with my dog, the whole Right to Hike organization is something near and dear to my interests," Bultema said.
Right to Hike promotes hiker awareness and safety and is raising money for navigational units, microchip identifiers for pets and the Meredith Hope Emerson Memorial Award for Study Abroad at the University of Georgia.
Race participant Katie Booher marveled at how quickly the event came together since the tragedy 10 months earlier. "It’s great that her friends and family rallied in such a short time frame to put on an event like this," Booher said.
"I think it’s a great way to honor her life and what she was all about," said race participant Rebecca Johnson. "Even though we didn’t know her, it’s evident she was a wonderful individual. We just want to remember her and press on."
Emerson’s friend Brent Seyler choked up as he reflected on the support shown for the event.
"Meredith would be proud," he said.
Said Emerson’s grandmother, Dorothy Lewis, through tears, "I’m just so overwhelmed."