HIKING THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL AS A CHAIRITY WALK
So the big question is, why did I hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) as a charity walk and what cause did I hike for? Well, I first heard about the AT back in 1998 as a 23 year old when I stumbled upon a book about some long distance thru hikers while I was backpacking through Thailand. It occurred to me then that this could be a great thing to do as a fundraiser/charity walk. However at that time I didn't have a charity in mind and I was busy searching for an ESL teaching job in Thailand, so I stored it in the back of my mind for future reference.
A few years later, in 2001, I found myself back in Thailand, doing a summer study abroad program at Payap University in Chiang Mai to study Thai language (getting some language credits for my BA at University of Hawai'i). While I was studying there, I reconnected with 2 different female friends that I had known from my previous time living and teaching in northern Thailand. One had been a waitress at a vegetarian restaurant we had frequented, and the other had worked in the front office of the school I had taught at. Just 3 years after I had met them, the waitress was now working at a karaoke bar, singing and drinking with male clients, and the front office girl was now working in a bar in a fancy hotel. The former waitress was from one of the ethnic minority hill tribes in the north and was in the city to earn money to help her family. Working in the karaoke bar was more financially lucrative than waitressing in the restaurant, however, it had changed her personality in dramatic ways and she now felt somewhat jaded and calloused from too many late nights working in the bar. The front office girl had recently graduated with a 2 year degree in hotel management and spoke fluent English, but the only job she was offered was sitting and drinking in a bar to entertain the male guests, and she was being pressured to start prostituting herself.
This whole situation really shook and depressed me. Was the only option for a young attractive woman in Thailand getting pulled into the bar and night life, and perhaps prostitution?! Even someone with a degree?! It was crazy and very, very sad to me. It upset me a great deal and caused me to start looking around for some kind of organization that might be working to help young women in Thailand avoid these traps and live better lives.
I returned to Thailand again in 2003 to study more Thai language, with the idea of finding an organization to help young women still firmly in my mind. Fortunately, one of the other American students in the Thai program at Papap University knew of a program in Mae Sai, Thailand near the Burmese border. This program (called DEPDC) focused on combatting human trafficking in the region. I learned that human traffickers comb the mountains in the north where different ethnic minority groups reside. These traffickers prey on desperate families struggling with poverty, drug addiction, orphaned children, incarceration, etc., and offer a good deal of up-front cash with promises to take their daughters and sons into he cities to do "hotel work" or other jobs what will allow them to make money to help their families. Of course these parents are often unwittingly selling their children into sexual slavery or forced labor. The NGO (non-governmental organization) that I discovered was targeting these same at-risk children and convincing the families to allow their kids to join this organization, live in a safe center for free, and be provided with free education. The idea was that getting them out of their villages and away from the traffickers, as well as sending them to school all the way through high school (in the villages they commonly must drop out of school after 6th grade to work and earn money to help their families), would allow their lives to move in a much more positive direction. I did a couple of months of volunteer work for this NGO in 2003 and was very impressed with the concept of using education to assist at-risk children.
Returning to Thailand in 2009, I discovered that 2 American women from Massachusetts, Jane McBride and Patty Zinkowski, had decided to take the same education idea and form their own NGO, Friends of Thai Daughters FTD). Obtaining funding and sponsors from back in the US, they focused on a smaller population of at-risk girls, bringing them to live in their own safe house in Chiang Mai and providing them with free high-level education all the way up through university. I was fortunate to be able to volunteer for them for 6 months in 2009 as an English teacher, researcher, and program assistant, and was really moved by the work that they were doing. Their work was truly providing incredible opportunities for these young women who would have otherwise been subjected to a life of poverty and/or trafficking. I am still in touch with all of these girls today and have seen them grow up to graduate from colleges and universities, travel and work in other countries, have careers and families of their own, and give back to this NGO.
Today, a whole new generation of girls are being cared for and given new life opportunities by FTD in the 2 new locations of Chiang Rai and Chiang Khong. They are thriving and doing great things to impact the lives of even more girls. I visited their Chiang Rai location twice in 2015 to see their amazing progress- the new house even has a swimming pool! I was once again moved and started thinking to myself about how I might contribute in a larger way. I have been donating money every month for a while now, but just felt like I wanted to do something more, something bigger. On the plane ride home, I just so happened to stumble upon the movie Wild, starring Reece Witherspoon, where despite her inexperience, a woman sets out to hike a majority of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) as a means to get her life back together. Later when I got home, I also read the excellent book of the same title by Cheryl Strayed. I followed that up by reading the book and watching the movie A Walk in the Woods starring Robert Redford that takes place on the actual Appalachian Trail (AT). This brought back my old idea from way back in 1998 of hiking the AT as a way to raise money for charity. Well, by this time I had a charity and it just seemed like the perfect thing to do to assist them in raising awareness and money towards their cause and allow them to expand their program to help even more at-risk girls. So that became my aim. In 2018, I thru-hiked the entire Appalachian Trail (2190.9 miles, 14 states, 223 days) for this cause. I would greatly appreciate any assistance any of you can give in the form of donations to my Go Fund Me page, spreading the word to friends and family via social media, or putting me in contact with any newspapers, magazines, media outlets, etc that you think might want to pick this story up and help me to advertise it further. Thank you all so much for all your support.
With Love and Aloha,