ERIE, Pa. — Penn State Behrend men’s soccer coach Dan Perritano has an ambitious offseason workout regimen: He just walked from Erie to Washington. D.C. — a distance of 320 miles — with his daughter, Emma.
The pair reached the White House on June 11. They had been walking for 23 days. Emma, 23, led the way; she has cerebral palsy, and she travels in a customized Team Hoyt wheelchair. Her father pushes it.
“She loves it,” he said. “She is energized by it. In the mornings, it’s like she’s fired out of a cannon.”
Dan Perritano maps a long walk every summer. He began the tradition in 2015, pushing Emma along Route 6, all the way to Port Jervis, New York. As the miles add up, the pair collect money for local charities.
“We make a really concerted effort to look at organizations that have impacted Emma,” Dan Perritano said.
This year’s walk raised money for the MOVE program (Making Opportunities for Volunteerism and Exploration), which is coordinated by the Erie Homes for Children and Adults. Emma attends the community-focused adult day care four days a week.
The Perritanos have crossed Pennsylvania several times. In 2021, they walked across Colorado.
The tradition started when Dan Perritano saw an ESPN segment about Dick and Rick Hoyt, a father-and-son racing team. The Hoyts have completed more than 1,000 road races, including six Ironman competitions. In 1992, they crossed the United States, traveling 3,735 miles in 45 days.
Rick Hoyt has cerebral palsy. His father pushes him in a customized racing wheelchair.
“We decided we needed to get one of those buggies,” Dan Perritano said.
Through a grant from Achieva, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization, the Perritanos were able to purchase a Hoyt wheelchair. They spent the winter walking around Erie, exploring in a way they couldn’t before.
Then, at a board meeting for the ARC of Erie County, which provides support and services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Dan Perritano decided to walk a bit farther.
“I sort of impulsively said, ‘Let’s walk across Pennsylvania,’” he said.
The walks are completed in phases. In the early portions, the pair travel up to 17 miles a day. As they walk, they listen to music from Emma’s eclectic playlists. Johnny Cash, the Beatles and the “Hamilton” soundtrack are among her favorites.
Often, they have company: Behrend soccer alumni will join them at different mileposts. Patrick O’Driscoll, the head coach of the Behrend women’s soccer team, also has walked with them.
Occasionally, they walk with strangers who have heard the family’s story and want to know more.
“There’s been a lot of interest,” Dan Perritano said. “It ranges from, ‘You’re crazy’ to, ‘I’d like to find out more.’ Sometimes, people will see us, pull over and donate.”
His wife, Jane Brady, serves as a sort of crew chief. Brady, the Registrar at Penn State Behrend, follows her family in a support van, bringing them home at the end of each day. Then they’ll drive back out and resume the journey where they stopped the day before.
Once they get too far for that to continue, the Perritanos commit to staying on the road. They spend the remaining nights in hotels or college dormitories.
Brady has veto power over the route: This year, when a stretch of road was too narrow to safely navigate with the Hoyt chair, they detoured onto the Western Maryland rail-trail system.
“We have learned to be safe, maximize mileage and find help along the way,” Perritano said. “Jane is sort of the voice of reason.”
“It gives us memories to look back on,” Brady said. “We do regular summer vacations, too, but this is maybe more meaningful. It’s like a little adventure.”
Learn more about Dan and Emma Perritano’s summer walks on the Erie Homes for Children and Adults webpage.