A 63-year-old grandmother is about to embark on the journey of a lifetime - a solo kayak trip from Maine to Guatemala.
Deborah Walters will depart from Yarmouth, Maine, on Friday, traveling 2,500 miles by next May. Her goal is to raise money and awareness about the devastating poverty in Guatemala. While Walters acknowledges she’s “no spring chicken,” she said the cause she's supporting is worth the challenge.
“It feels like you’re jumping off a cliff - many ‘what if’ questions,” said Walters. Despite the many risks, she said a little bit of fear is a good thing, and that it is important to “be aware of the fear, but don’t let it stop you.”
Nine years ago, Walters visited Guatemala City’s garbage dump community. There, she witnessed the horrifying living conditions of the impoverished Guatemalan families - scarce food supply, air pollution, and a lack of educational facilities. She began volunteering for Safe Passage - a nonprofit organization which makes it possible for Guatemalan children living in the area to attend school. After years of service, she has decided to go the extra mile, or 2,500, by paddling down the coast until next May, stopping along the way to share the story of the children.
Walters is an avid adventurer and has been kayaking for decades. She has gained a boatload of kayaking experience, paddling through regions like the icy Arctic, as well as surviving a hurricane during a solo kayaking trip along the coast of Nova Scotia. In preparation for her excursion, she has been using the 5BX Plan - an exercise program developed for the Royal Canadian Air Force in the late 1950s.
Many people and experiences have inspired Walters to make a difference. One in particular is named Mira, a Guatemalan mother Walters met on her trip. Walters said Mira was abandoned by her parents as a child, and began working in the dump when she was eight years old.
“She is an inspiration to me”, Walters said, “Her favorite quote is, 'If you believe you can do it, you can do it.'”
Safe Passage is a non-profit organization, which works to provide children and their families a better life by enrolling impoverished children in schools. It was founded by Hanley Denning, a 1992 Bowdoin College graduate. She opened the doors of Safe Passage in December 1999, selling her computer and her car to enroll 46 of the poorest children in school. Soon after Denning developed Safe Passage into a success, she died in an automobile accident in Guatemala, the Portland Press Herald reported.
Walters, who met Denning and considered her "incredibly inspiring," believes the founder's vision of educating impoverished kids is being fulfilled by supporters of today's journey.
"I think she would appreciate what I am doing," said Walters. It is "a little different, a little out there."
Walters plans to paddle for two-thirds of each day, traveling about 13.3 miles. Planned stops on the trip include Boston, New York City, and Key West. She plans to travel by sailboat from Florida to Belize. Walters' year-long route may be found here.
The children of Safe Passage have made sure that Walters won't travel alone, giving her a rubber-duck companion named Patitio Amistoso meaning "Friendly Duckling." She will carry a large amount of electronics to connect her to the public, and allow her to update her blog.
Walters is receiving an immeasurable amount of support and attention for her service but she considers herself an "introvert."
"I am focused on the success of the expedition, but I want the children to have the attention," she said.
Because the journey may push Walters out of her social comfort zone, she plans to stay with host families and volunteers. Many nights are already accommodated by Rotarians and samaritans, but Walters may resort to staying in a hotel on occasion, as well as camping outdoors.
The 63-year-old will cover all her personal expedition expenses, and believes she will save money by kayaking for the year. She will not need airfare or gasoline for her car, and most of her food payment will be covered by volunteers. As for amusement, she "will be entertained by the seals and the fish". She is not focused on what she will spend, but what she will gain throughout this experience.
The traveler's biggest concern is that her previous kayaking injury in her shoulder will slow her down. Strategically, she plans to use a variety of paddles, working different muscle groups each time she rows. She realizes she may have to rest throughout the voyage to allow her body to recover. Her family and friends are a little nervous, but they fully support her, especially her grandchildren. "They realize I am taking a risk, but that I will be as safe as possible", she said.
Walters hopes to raise enough funds to develop three new grades for the Guatemalan school, with 50-100 students in each grade level. All donations go directly to Safe Passage, and are tax deductible. Money is important, but in Walter's eyes, it is "not the amount of donations" that matters most, but the hope that "her message reaches a larger number of people."