Swiss NGO founder all set for a 14,800-km, 2-year trek back to Mindanao

Thomas Kellenberger during an outing with some Filipino children in 2018. Photo from the Facebook account of Thomas Kellenberger

BERN, SWITZERLAND (MindaNews /19 July) – Thomas Kellenberger, the 39-year-old Swiss founder of a foundation helping street children in Cagayan de Oro city, is returning to the Philippines after being stranded here for nearly a year since July 22, 2020.

But he won’t be flying to the Philippines, which he considers “home.” Instead, he will walk back home.

Kellenberger’s “Walk for a Cause” will take him through 14,800 kilometers over 22 countries in an ambitious trek that will last nearly two years if completed. He will start out on August 25 in Interlaken, Switzerland and will walk through parts of Italy, Slovenia, some Balkan countries, Greece and Turkey, proceeding to some central Asian countries like China, Pakistan and India, then on to Southeast Asian countries ending in Vietnam. From Vietnam, he will fly to the Philippines, but then will walk again from Manila to his final destination in Cagayan de Oro City in Mindanao.

Along the way, Kellenberger will be meeting other NGOs to increase public awareness about child neglect, abuse and exploitation, and also try to form solidarity with them on environmental issues that need urgent action.

Dubbed “Kuya Thom Goes Home: A Walk For A Cause,” Kellenberger aims to raise up to 165,000 Swiss francs (P9 million at current rates) from private supporters and corporate sponsors to create a second “children’s village” for his foundation, Island Kids Philippines, which he started in 2007.  The money will buy land for the school location and spend for a year of operations, according to Kellenberger.

“I remember that years ago, I was thinking about walking the Jacob’s Trail in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. So I thought why not combine my personal desire to walk in the mountains with walking for a cause? There was also this desire to return home. Why should I walk in Santiago de Compostela when I could walk back to the Philippines?” said Kellenberger, who admitted that he was inspired by the story of a  99-year-old British man who used his walking stick to walk around his house to raise funds for health workers in Britain.

Although he will walk alone for most of the nearly 15,000-kilometer route, Kellenberger asked his friends and supporters to walk with him if they can.

“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,” Kellenberger invited friends and supporters, including Filipinos.

Filipinos living in Switzerland have formed support teams to raise funds and host talks by Kellenberger. Anny Hefti of Bern said a group of Filipinas will also help send off Kellenberger when he starts his long walk in Interlaken on August 25.

To prepare himself physically, Kellenberger has trained regularly and completed test walks, including last April when he walked from the northern point of Switzerland to the southernmost.

“For that walk, I carried 22 kilos of gear and slept in a tent, and tried to walk 30 to 60 kilometers per day. I finished this route in 8.5 days. This was important because I realized that I was carrying too much luggage. When I finally leave for the Philippines, it will only be like 15 kilos. I should carry only a minimum equipment, food, clothing and personal articles,” he told MindaNews in an exclusive interview on  June 19.

Kellenberger has a support team with specific roles  that meets every two weeks — planning the route, marketing the project and a physiotherapist ramping up his physical condition.

“There is also my personal preparation, including paragliding and hiking in the mountains. I carry heavy loads up the mountains in high altitudes of up to 1,500 meters above sea level in the shortest possible time, “ he said.

To keep supporters abreast on his walk, Kellenberger will post updates on Facebook and Instagram and on the Island Kids homepage (, and is considering doing a travel blog.

He said: “I will be sharing my experiences in the countries I am walking through. I plan to meet groups that help children who are 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.”

Kellenberger admitted he needs private time to process the death of his mother Ruth, who died in October last year. He rushed home to Switzerland to take care of her seriously-ill mother and had been unable to return to the Philippines since then due to the pandemic restrictions.

“My mother Ruth played a key role in the foundation. Ever since we started the project, she believed in the project, she believed in me, she was one of the founding members. Whenever there were difficulties and there were challenges in front of us, 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 Kellenberger, who was 26 years old when he started the Island Kids foundation.

A former policeman in Bern, Kellenberger formed Island Kids in 2007 after a vacation in the Philippines where he saw firsthand the difficulties of Filipino children in street situations, waste or garbage picker families and child victims of sexual abuse and exploitation.

“The need to help these children is still present under the pandemic, especially in the increasing cases of online abuse and exploitation,” Kellenberger said.

Today, Island Kids operates two schools in Cagayan de Oro, serving up to 700 children. It gets support from fundraising groups in Switzerland and Germany. (Brady Eviota / MindaNews)