Teenager Making 200-Mile Pilgrimage as a Tribute to His Father

This summer,17-year-old AJ Brenneman is putting one foot in front of another—400,000 times–to honor his father’s legacy. 

From the time that he could walk until he was six, AJ’s favorite place to be was by his father David’s side or in his arms. When David died from rhabdomyosarcoma in 2013, grief hit AJ from all sides: anger at losing someone so close, jealousy of children who still got to see their fathers and guilt at not getting over his loss sooner. Support groups, soccer, and time with friends and family eased but did not erase AJ’s grief. 

That grief intensified as the 10th anniversary of David’s death approached. “I was miserable and nothing seemed to change or help me get me out of this dark place. Some container inside me broke and everything just spilled out,” AJ wrote in a blog post earlier this year. 

After weeks of reflection, AJ found his answer, which he calls 200 Miles Closer to Dad. He hopes it will help him move on, remember his father, and help others affected by sarcoma. This summer, AJ, along with his mother Mina, his brother Will, and his sister Maggie, will walk 200 miles from Porto, Portugal, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, as a fundraiser to support people living with sarcoma. 

AJ wrote on his blog, “I hope this walk will help me try to fully grieve the passing of my dad so that when I think of him, it’s only the good things I remember. I have a feeling that this walk will be one of the hardest, yet most meaningful, things I will do in my life.” 

AJ is walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage which dates back to the 9th century. According to legend, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela holds the remains of Saint James, which were brought from Jerusalem to Spain. Today, more than 200,000 people make the journey from France, Portugal, or Italy every year. The pilgrimage also has a personal connection to the Brenneman family. AJ’s mother Mina walked the Camino twice—first as a fundraiser for SFA in 2016 and again in 2023. AJ chose Portugal as the starting point in honor of his uncle Michael, his father’s brother, who lived in Portugal for four years.

Starting on June 24, the Brennemans will walk along the Portuguese coast through medieval villages, and dusty trails before arriving at Santiago de Compostela on July 4. AJ will update his blog and Instagram account with photos and reflections from his journey along the way. When they arrive, AJ and his family will attend a special mass and rooftop tour of the 800-year-old cathedral along with the other pilgrims and find AJ’s grandparents, David’s parents, will be waiting for them when they’re done. 

“Right now I feel good for the trip,” AJ said. “It scares me, but I think it will be a new chapter in my life. I’ll miss my dad a lot, but it will feel like he’s walking with us.” 

Since announcing a $5,000 goal in January, AJ has raised triple that amount. Now, he hopes to reach $25,000 by the time he completes his journey. 

Read AJ’s blog and donate to his fundraiser.

Follow AJ’s journey on Instagram.