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Maine Grandmother to Paddle 2,500 Miles on Behalf of Poverty-Stricken Children

Susan Sharon

This weekend a 63-year-old grandmother from Unity is embarking on an unusual solo expedition that will take her across half a continent and take nearly a year to complete.

Deborah Walters plans to kayak 2,500 miles from Maine to Guatemala to raise money for Yarmouth-based Safe Passage, a non-profit dedicated to the education and support of the children and families who live in extreme poverty near the Guatemala City garbage dump.

Deb Walters' kayak has more technology on board than most people have in their office cubicles: several cameras, her computer, state-of-the-art navigational devices. And then there's camping equipment, enough clothes to make it through the change of seasons and dehydrated food she made herself - all told, about 160 pounds of gear.

"In fact, someone just called me up this morning and said, 'Are you bringing a swimsuit? And, I'm going like, 'Well, no I couldn't fit that in,' " she says.

Credit Susan Sharon
Walters packs her kayak.

Standing at the town landing in Yarmouth, Walters says she's been planning this trip for months - years actually - ever since she made a trip to Central America.

"Nine years ago I went to Guatemala. I visited the garbage dump there and I smelled the methane gas and the rotting garbage. I saw the vultures circling overhead and I had a chance to talk to the parents who support their families by scavenging he dump for food, for clothing, for other items that they can recycle and sell," she says.

It was an epiphany for Walters, a former science researcher and college dean. So she began volunteering for Safe Passage, which provides early nutrition, health services and education for about 600 children who live around the dump's neighborhoods. Walters' goal is to raise enough money so that Safe Passage can add a third grade to the school it now operates in the area. She says that will cost about $320,000.

"People say, 'Why not write a book, or have a bake sale, or a golf tournament?' And I say. 'Because I want to combine my passion for the children with my slightly unusual passion for long distance kayaking,' " she says.

Walters has kayaked solo in the Arctic, along parts of the Northwest Passage, around Hudson Bay and the coast of Nova Scotia. Along this trip, she plans to hug the coast as much as possible. She'll average about 13 miles a day. And while she plans to camp where she can, strangers and volunteers have also agreed to host her along the way.

"She's mentally so tough that that's what's gonna, you know, make it work," says Chris Percival, Walters' husband, who is not a paddler. But he says he's confident his wife can handle just about anything.

"I've heard about her stories in her Arctic trip, where she was wind-bound for days at a time in her tent. She couldn't get out and paddle 'cause the winds would blow you over," he says. "She's very thorough about planning and being careful about things. So, you've got to assume things are going to go well, right?"

Credit Susan Sharon
Deborah Walters, center, with David Holman, left, and Mike Denning.

As Dave Holman of Safe Passage sees it, that's the philosophy that Hanley Denning would have embraced. Denning was a Bowdoin College graduate and native of Yarmouth, who went down to Guatemala in the late 90s to practice her Spanish and volunteer. But then she discovered hundreds of children working at the Guatemala City garbage dump and she couldn't get them out of her mind. So Holman says Denning sold all of her possessions and started Safe Passage in an abandoned church.

"She was, unfortunately, killed in a car accident in 2007 in Guatemala and that threw the whole program into disarray," Holman says.

But Holman says, by then, the program was so well known, especially in Maine, that supporters and the board of directors jumped in and decided to keep it going. Denning's spirit and commitment, it turns out, had already spread around the world.

"She was known for saying 'Yes!' enthusiastically whenever volunteers wanted to take action, take their own initiative and make something happen to help other people," he says. "So, I'm sure she's here in spirit today saying 'Yes!' "

Credit Susan Sharon
Deborah Walters paddles her kayak.

Walters admits to having some nerves about her journey, which she compares to jumping off a cliff. She says she's most worried about how her 63-year-old body, arthritis, tendonitis and all, will physically endure the trip.

But then she says she remembers what Myrna, a mother of one of the Guatemala children, told her to think about along the way. "And she said, if you believe you can do it, you can do it."

And that's something Safe Passage founder Hanley Denning would have likely echoed "Yes!" to, as Walters pushed off from the town landing in Yarmouth Friday morning accompanied by a small group of supporters.

Walters plans to head to Portland where she'll have an official send off on Sunday. After that her voyage will be updated on her Web site and blog.

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