Yarmouth-to-Guatemala trip raises $425K for Safe Passage

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YARMOUTH — Dr. Deb Walters has completed her fundraising journey to Guatemala.

The Maine grandmother, who lives in Troy, raised more than $425,000 for Safe Passage, the Yarmouth-based organization that helps children and families living in the Guatemala City Garbage Dump.

She departed Yarmouth by kayak in July 2014, and the 2,500-mile trip wasn’t a straight shot for 64-year-old Walters.

After suffering a spinal injury in January 2015, she had to take a break to have surgery. At that point she had reached South Carolina and, when restarting in September 2015, Walters decided to head to Guatemala by sailboat to make up for lost time.

She was originally only supposed to sail from Florida to Guatemala, for safety reasons. Wanting to raise more money for Safe Passage, though, Walters went back to South Carolina after leaving Guatemala and kayaked to Key West, Florida. Organizations and companies had pledged money based on the number of miles she kayaked, and she wanted to complete the full 2,500-mile trip she had promised.

Walters arrived in Key West in the middle of February, officially marking the end of her trip. When she made it to Guatemala last fall, she stayed for a couple of weeks. She had been there before many times with Safe Passage, but she said her welcome this time was very exciting.

Upon arriving in Guatemala, Walters was greeted by children and families who had been tracking her journey on her blog. She said they had written songs for her and had a map to mark where she had been during the trip.

“I had no idea how engaged the children and parents were in my expedition,” Walters said.

The families in Guatemala weren’t the only ones who were following what Walters had been doing. In November, she was recognized by the United Nations as one of six Rotary Global Women of Action.

Walters also inspired people she met along the way at speaking engagements. Each night she would stay with a different person or family, which was arranged by Walters’ fellow Rotary Club members, and she would give talks in different cities.

The speaking tour will continue now that the trip is over, and Walters said people interested in having her as a guest can contact her at dr.deb.walters@gmail.com.

During her trip, Walters said some days were much tougher than others. She encountered hurricanes and tropical rain storms, and the trip was tiring.

“I sort of knew in advance that it would be hard to keep going,” she said. “I’d wake up some mornings and really wouldn’t want to go out and paddle, but then I’d think of the families in the garbage dump and how persistent they are.”

Walters also kept going so she could raise money for the families and children.

In addition to per-mile donations, Rotary awarded Safe Passage an $85,000 grant. The money will be used to expand a school that Safe Passage built for the children who live in the dump. Walters said the school only includes a couple of lower grade levels, but will be able to expand up to sixth grade.

Safe Passage had been offering after-school programs for children, but now the organization has its own school. Walters said the goal is to raise more money so middle school grades can be added.

While the journey will be one of the most memorable experiences of Walters’ life, she said the lessons she’s learned from the families who live in the dump will be what stays with her.

“It’s been a long haul,” she said. “But when I think of the children, parents and staff at Safe Passage and how hard they work every day, my efforts pale in comparison. Indeed, their experience has shown me what one can accomplish with a little bit of grit and lots of determination.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Dr. Deb Walters was greeted in Guatemala by families who live near a garbage dump at the end of her trip from Maine.

Dr. Deb Walters departed for Guatemala from Yarmouth in July 2014.

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I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.