ALPSIDE DOWNED: Walk

MACTAN, Cebu (MindaNews / 23 July) – I  know Thomas Kellenberger, and what I know of him is that when he puts his mind to it, he does it.

After all, Thomas was only 26 years old when he started the Island Kids Foundation Inc. in Cagayan de Oro City that helps Filipino children in street situations (what we formerly called street kids), waste picker families (or garbage dump scavengers) and child victims of sexual abuse and exploitation.

Thomas was a policeman in Bern then, but he quit his job and moved to the Philippines in a life-changing move that left not a few bewildered. Around 2006, Thomas was on a vacation in Mindanao with a friend. There in Camiguin he had an encounter with a child vendor, who he asked to buy bottled water. His friends thought it was foolish trusting a stranger with the big cash bill and told him to forget his money, it was considered lost. But the girl did come back with the bottled water and the exact change, and this had impressed Thomas greatly.

His firsthand encounters with the honest vendor and the other children who started working young to help their families weighed heavily on Thomas, and when he came back to Switzerland, he started his plan to help them long-term in more impactful ways.

Long story short, Thomas went back to the Philippines and formed the Island Kids Foundation which created schools for children in poverty and jobs and literacy classes for their families, set up feeding and nutrition centers, and livelihood projects for the parents.

He lived with the picker families in the garbage dumps, earning their trust and respect that he was dubbed “Kuya Thom” by the children and their families, learned the Bisaya dialect and in 2011 finally decided to live in the Philippines.

Island Kids presently has two schools in Cagayan de Oro serving up to 700 children and has support fundraising groups – all volunteers – in Switzerland (formed by his family and Swiss policeman friends) and in Germany (formed by a sympathetic and like-minded German judge).

But an illness in the family made Thomas come back to Bern last year. His mother Ruth was already terminally-ill when Thomas arrived in July and expired just a few months after in October. Since then Thomas has been stranded in Bern, as a foreigner still not allowed under the strict pandemic regulations in the Philippines to return to the country.

But Thomas had a plan. If flying home was still difficult, why not just walk home? And if it was possible to walk home, why not make it a fundraiser for Island Kids and to raise awareness on urgent environmental issues that needed action?

Thus was hatched the “Kuya Thom Goes Home: A Walk For A Cause” along a 14,800-kilometer route over 22 countries that will take an estimated two years for Thomas to complete. Along the way, Thomas will meet other NGOs also working on the issues of child neglect, abuse and exploitation, and also with environmental groups working on country issues such as reducing carbon footprints.

The walk plans to raise 165,000 Swiss francs from private supporters and corporate sponsors to create a second “children’s village” for Island Kids.

The arduous and physically demanding route and logistical needs makes it easy to consider Thomas’ walk as a record-breaking attempt of sorts, something that Thomas has not intended. For him, the path is the goal and the people and the groups that he will meet and the experiences that he will gather along the way is just as important as the distance that he will be able to cover. “Der Weg is das Ziel” (the Path is the goal) will be his mantra on his long trek.

“I will be sharing my experiences in the countries I am walking through. I plan to meet groups that help children victims of abuse and raise awareness about the work these organizations are doing. And then I will update people about our work in Cagayan de Oro so they can see children in these situations and how organizations are helping these kids,” Thomas told me last June while meeting with Filipino supporters.

While he and his Swiss support team have fixed the distance goals for him, Thomas is also asking friends and other supporters to join him in his walk. “You can join me, you can meet up with me and walk with me. Do not worry about the pace, we do not need to run, we can do shorter distances or what is easy for you. So feel free to join me, it will be nice to journey together,” Thomas has asked friends.

The walk is also his sabbatical of sorts, giving him private time along the way to process the death of his mother Ruth, a founding member of Island Kids who died of sickness in October last year. “My mother Ruth played a key role in the foundation. Ever since we started the project she believed in the project and in me. Whenever there were difficulties, the first person I would call was my mother. Whenever there was something exciting happening or when I had a big challenge, the first thing that came to my mind was to call Mama,” revealed Thomas, who is now 39 years old.

Something I learned from more than a decade of living with the Swiss is that they can be the most detailed planners when they are decided on something. Thomas even has a personal team that meets every two weeks – planning the route to the detail, marketing the project, and a physiotherapist ramping up his physical condition.

Knowing Thomas as a determined man who set aside a comfortable life and took the harder route to help children in the Philippines, I have no doubt that he will accomplish the personal and organizational goals that he has set for himself, regardless of whether or not he actually completes the nearly 15,000-kilometer trek.

(Mindanawon Abroad is MindaNews’ effort to link up with Mindanawons overseas who would like to share their thoughts about their home country and their experiences in their adopted countries. Brady Eviota wrote and edited for the now defunct Media Mindanao News Service in Davao and also for SunStar Cagayan de Oro. He is from Surigao City and now lives in Bern, the Swiss capital located near the Bernese Alps)

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