David Lauderdale

Lauderdale: Grandmother kayaks to Guatemala for kids in the garbage dump

Grandmother kayaking from Maine to Guatemala spends night on Hilton Head Island

Deb Walters, of Troy, Maine, is talks about kayaking alone from her home in Maine to Guatemala to raise money and awareness for the children who live in the Guatemala City garbage dump community.
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Deb Walters, of Troy, Maine, is talks about kayaking alone from her home in Maine to Guatemala to raise money and awareness for the children who live in the Guatemala City garbage dump community.

A grandmother really ought to hang it up when spinal surgery interrupts her 2,500-mile kayak trip to raise money for kids living in a garbage dump.

But it didn't work on Deborah Walters of Troy, Maine, who stopped at Port Royal, Hilton Head Island and Daufuskie Island this week on her water route to Guatemala.

And that's kind of the whole point.

"With a little bit of grit, determination and persistence, a lot of good things can happen," she said. "That's what I've learned from the kids in the garbage dump."

Thousands of squatters live around the 40-acre dump in the heart of Guatemala City. Walters learned about it through her work with Rotary. She went to see it. She found children and single moms who society shun as "garbage" to be driven, smart entrepreneurs with thankful attitudes. They pick through the dump and make things or sell things from the rancid garbage.

"In many places where I travel around the world, I see people with their hand out," Walters said. "Here, I see people doing everything they can to make their own lives and their children's lives better."

Walters ended up as president of the board of the Safe Passage nonprofit that targets the poorest of the poor at the dump. Education, nutrition, medicine, adult literacy and anti-gang sports programs are its vehicles for the road out of poverty.

Walters' Kayak for Safe Passage Kids -- from her house in Maine to Guatemala -- has raised $408,000 of its $425,000 goal through donations, grants and pledges.

The trip is not a whim. Walters has survived many storms, even a hurricane, in her decades of sea kayaking. On Saturday, she had to sit out a pretty good storm here in the 18-foot wooden kayak she built 16 years ago. The bright yellow vessel is lined with stickers from corporate sponsors making the trip possible.

"Two hours of just floating with the currents, 10 minutes of terror, one hour of hard work crossing Port Royal Sound, and another hour of easy paddling," is how she describes "Paddle Day 7" in her blog.

Walters is often hosted by Rotarians. She was met on Hilton Head by hosts Mary-Stuart and Jack Alderman.

Back in March near Georgetown, her hostess was a nurse who demanded that Walters go to the emergency room. Walters had been stoically ignoring pain in her neck, arms and shoulders. After surgery in Charleston, the trek to Guatemala was called off until she got back in the Lowcountry currents Sept. 24 at Belle Isle Marina, right where she left off. She had more than 1,000 miles to go as she shoved off Tuesday for Daufuskie Island from Hudson's Seafood House on the Docks.

"The trip has this sort of Forrest Gump quality to it," she said. Strangers sometimes join her paddling for a while after watching her movement online.

Other strangers take her into their homes. And even though they don't know each other, they tend to start sharing their innermost dreams. Maybe it's because the kayaking grandmother whose career was spent as a college professor and administrator tells how she and her husband, an engineer, retired early by spending very little on themselves all those years and now live simply, pursuing unusual dreams.

Sometimes the strangers will surprise her later with an email that says, "I did it! I finally took a step to live the life I really want to live."

It makes Walters think of the single mother squatting at the edge of the seething, smelling, dangerous garbage dump. Walters asked the mother what she should tell people along the journey on her behalf.

"You know," the poor woman replied, "there's a quote I've heard a lot. 'If you believe you can do it, you can do it.' Tell them that."

Learn more

Click or tap here to learn more about Safe Passage and here to follow Walters' journey in real time and through her blog.

Follow columnist and senior editor David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale and facebook.com/david.lauderdale.16.