Deborah Walters isn't your everyday grandmother, which is one reason her mission is so compelling. Last July, the 63-year-old retired research scientist launched her homemade stitch-and-glue sea kayak into the Atlantic Ocean in Yarmouth, Maine. Her destination: Guatemala City. Walters' 10-month, 2,500-mile solo journey is a fundraiser for Safe Passage, a Yarmouth-based nonprofit seeking to improve educational opportunities for thousands of children living in a Guatemala garbage dump. Her goal of $150,000 will give children a place to complete their third- and fourth-grade studies.
Over this summer, fall and winter, Walters has worked her way down the Eastern Seaboard, stopping in communities to spread her message. "What's been striking is that the people who have given the most generously have been in the less wealthy places," she says. "When you talk to people about children living in garbage dumps, they realize those living conditions are worse than anything we have here."
Walters started sea kayaking in 1981, and has paddled throughout North America, including the high arctic and Atlantic Canada, "where you are truly alone," she says. "This is more like performing arts with high participation from the audience." And Walter's expedition for a cause ties her to that audience, and a calendar, even while keeping up a routine of 18-mile days. "On a trip for myself, I can stop when I want to stop," she notes. "But now, because of speaking engagements I've had to paddle on some days when I shouldn't, just to keep to the schedule. It's been more strenuous."
Walters has benefited from plenty of hospitality. Though she's carrying 150 pounds of gear, including a tent, sleeping gear and food, she's rarely had to dig into her hatches. Most nights, strangers have invited Walters to stay in their homes. Others have joined her on the water, including a group of local paddlers through the bustling, tide-washed waters surrounding New York City. "It was an unreal feeling paddling through Manhattan and seeing all the landmarks," says Walters. "It was the most stress-free way of arriving in New York that you could ever imagine."
Walters had planned to "keep the shoreline on her right" and trace the Gulf of Mexico all the way to Guatemala, but she reluctantly changed her route to avoid the danger of drug cartels. Instead, she'll crew on a friend's sailboat when she arrives in Miami on April 1 and sail across the Gulf to Belize. There she'll return to paddling, with the goal of completing the Central American leg of her journey by the end of April.
"If you believe you can do it, you can do it," says Walters, who was inspired by a mother in Guatemala. "That's the message I try to pass along in my presentations. What I am doing is nothing special. It's like a series of day-trips—not a big me-against-nature thing."
This feature originally ran in the March 2015 issue.
Update from Walters’ website www.safepassage.org: “Deb kayaked over 1,500 miles before requiring emergency spinal surgery. She continued the speaking tour by car and sailboat, arriving in Guatemala in March 2015. Once she recovers she will kayak the remaining 1,000 miles.”