Troy grandmother to kayak from Maine to Guatemala

Posted May 21, 2014, at 1:10 p.m.

A 63-year-old grandmother is about to set out on the journey of a lifetime to raise funds and awareness for the children of Guatemala City’s “garbage dump community.”

Deborah Walters of Troy is planning to set out July 11 on a solo 2,500-mile kayak trip from Maine to Guatemala.

She has received donations from 35 businesses, and will pay for her own expedition expenses and carry all her food, water and camping equipment on the yearlong journey.

Walters’ expedition is raising money for Safe Passage, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Yarmouth.The program’s school in Guatemala is educating 550 children out of the thousands of young people in Guatemala City.

On her trip, Walters hopes to share stories of perseverance from the community, whose members support themselves financially by scavenging in the city’s garbage dump for recyclables, food, clothing and building materials.

Walters said the mothers in this community had a dream — to send their children to school.

“It was just a simple wish,” said Walters. “It broke my heart. I knew I had to do something to help.”

Since Safe Passage’s start in 1997, the school has helped Guatemalan children move away from extreme poverty, offering them education and opportunity through afterschool programs, as public school is only offered for half days in Guatemala. Safe Passage has also provided families appropriate funding to send their children to public school. The program, started by the late Maine-native Hanley Denning, works with 300 families with children from ages 2 to 21.

Walters said she hopes her journey can raise enough funds to begin adding more grade levels to the school, which is expanding to full-day offerings while also looking to add third grade by next year.

According to Walters, education is essential to Guatemala’s future. The chronic malnutrition rate for children under five in Guatemala is 49.89 percent. Because of the Safe Passage nutrition program, none of their students are malnourished. For Walters, this was an accomplishment that gave her hope.

“I’m just so inspired,” she said.

Currently, Safe Passage graduates’ families earn five times the average family wage in their community. It’s a reason for hope and proof for Walters that her journey can make a difference.

Walters has decades of paddling experience, which has brought her on expeditions to the Arctic, the Sea of Cortez and the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia, among other locations. Walters said this most recent endeavor was inspired by her love for kayaking and her own memories of a visit to Guatemala City nine years ago.

“I smelled the methane and the rotting garbage. I felt the choking dust blowing around and saw the vultures circling overhead,” said Walters.

After hearing mothers’ dreams and inability to send their children to school for a better future, she felt she had to help. She began working with Safe Passage, and now she’s supporting “Camino Seguro,” as it’s known in Guatemala, in a personal way.

“I believe that ordinary people can do extraordinary things, with a little perseverance. The Safe Passage kids and families demonstrate that, and inspire me to see what I can do, with a little perseverance,” she said. Some of the preschool students are building a waterproof mascot Walters will carry with her on the expedition.

A retired cognitive scientist and neurocommunications doctor, Walters will paddle from Maine to Guatemala, only stopping in small towns for weekly speaking engagements, to gain support. She will travel in a completely recycled kayak she began building 16 years ago.

Although she plans a solo paddle, Walters won’t be alone on her expedition. She will camp and stay with hosts along the coast. Thirty-five business donations also will help Walters on her way. Donations are headed by a $25,000 gift from Maine-based company Broadreach Public Relations.

Walters sees her expedition as a way to help by doing what she loves. While paddling, the outdoor adventurer can see “the sights of the world unfolding at human speed.”

The outdoor adventurer also likes the more challenging moments on the water. “I like when the wind picks up and the waves build. Endorphins are my favorite drug,” said Walters.

Although she is taking extra safety precautions, like following the coast and taking a sailboat ride from Florida to Belize to avoid the Gulf Coast, Walters believes her trip shows “you’re never too old [to do what you want and] ordinary people can do extraordinary things,” she said.

Walters knows some people think she’s “completely nuts.” Someone once asked her, “What went wrong in your life to make you want to do this?”

Walters smiled. “What went right in my life?” she asked. “Going down and meeting people there [in Guatemala].”

For more information about Safe Passage, visit safepassage.org. To follow Walters’ journey, donate or volunteer, visit kayakforsafepassagekids.blogspot.com.

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