Swiss adventurer starts two-year trek back to Mindanao

Thomas Kellenberger with Filipino supporters. Photo courtesy of Anny Misa Hefti

BERN, Switzerland (MindaNews / 26 August) – At around eight o’clock on Wednesday morning, Thomas Kellenberger, the 39-year-old Swiss founder of a foundation helping street children in Cagayan de Oro city, took the first of many steps that will bring him back to the Philippines.

Kellenberger was wearing a white t-shirt printed with his event, a 15,000-kilometer fund-raising walk to the Philippines that is estimated to take two years to complete. He had on ankle-length outdoors shoes and carried a backpack – strictly limited to 15 kilos – containing clothes, a spare set of tennis shoes, essential items like cooking gear and an ultra-light pole-less tent weighing only 900 grams.

On his backpack hung a small anahaw fan from the Philippines, the only hint of his final destination.

He was sent off by a crowd of some 50 friends and supporters who gathered in the Swiss town of Wilderswil,  among them a group of Filipinas who brought a banner with the words: “Ciao Thomas! Godbless! Kuya Thom Goes Home”.

Among the well-wishers was the Philippine Ambassador to Switzerland Denis Yap Lepatan and wife Maria Theresa Lepatan and embassy staff. A news crew of the private local television company Telebaern was also on hand to film his departure, while the SRF or Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen (Swiss Radio and Television) will make update news video of Thomas’ progress.

Thomas Keelberger loaded and ready to walk. Photo courtesy of Anny Misa Hefti

Kellenberger’s “Kuya Thom Goes Home: Walk for a Cause” will take him through 22 countries. Along the way, Kellenberger will meet other NGOs to increase public awareness about child neglect, abuse and exploitation, and form solidarity on environmental issues that need urgent action.

The morning of his departure was clear and the atmosphere was a mixed festive and sentimental, according to Jake Clemencio, who formerly worked in Cagayan de Oro with a human rights group.

“There was clapping from people, and there were embraces all around and some got sentimental and cried,” said Clemencio.

Kellenberger’s family was in the send-off, including his grandmother and his father, also called Thomas, who had flown in from Africa where he now lives. There was also a big group of boys from “You Count”, a boarding school in Wilderswil where Thomas had worked temporarily while he was stranded here since last year.

“Thomas had a positive aura, he looked physically and emotionally fit for this challenge,” added Clemencio, who in a quirk of reality, had also sent off his two half-Filipino sons David and Raphael in April 2020 in their attempt to bike from Switzerland to the Great Wall of China.

“Thomas is close to my heart because of his work for the poor in Cagayan de Oro, I also worked for human rights. I hope he will be safe on his way,” said Clemencio, who now lives in the village of Worb.

Anny Hefti, a Filipina psychologist who supports Island Kids and has known Thomas for long, meanwhile said she thought Thomas was not showing his emotions that morning.

Thomas Kellenberger pose with supporters during the sendoff. Photo courtesy of Anny Misa Hefti

“He was quieter than usual, I could see that he was hiding his feelings. But he had taken so long to prepare for the trek, I think he was already looking forward to doing it. It was really time to just go off and get started,” said Hefti, who has organized a group of Filipina supporters in Switzerland who call themselves “Friends of Island Kids.”

Kellenberger had planned to leave at 7:30 a.m. but his start was delayed for nearly an hour by a big crowd who had breakfast with him and then had sent him off through embraces, back pats and handshakes. Before starting out, he gave a short speech expressing his gratitude at the full support given by the crowd of supporters. A group of boys from “You Count” will walk and camp together with him for his first week.

Kellenberger aims to walk some thirty kilometers a day which, according to supporters’ estimates, will take him some 5 to 6 hours every day.

Anny Hefti said they had to ask supporters not to give any souvenirs or gifts to Thomas so that he would not be burdened by additional weight in his long trek. “Every gram counts for him, so the less he carried the better,” added Hefti.

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.

Island Kids operates two schools in Cagayan de Oro serving up to 700 children and gets support from fundraising chapters in Switzerland and Germany. His walk aims to raise funds for another Island Kids “children’s village”. (Brady Eviota / MindaNews)