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Grandmother To Kayak from Maine to Guatemala to Fund School

Deborah Walters poses in the custom-built kayak donated by one of her many sponsors. In it, she will travel from Maine to Guatemala to raise money and awareness for Safe Passage, a non-profit that supports children in the Central American country. Chris Percival / Courtesy of Safe Passage

Retired academic Deborah Walters has kayaked all across North America, from the freezing waters of Northern Canada to the mosquito-laden Florida Everglades. But now, she is about to face the biggest challenge in her decades of paddling.

The 63-year-old Maine grandmother of four will embark Sunday on a more than 2,500-mile journey from Portland, Maine, to Guatemala. Her long-distance kayak adventure will take over a year, and by traveling this great distance, Walters aims to raise money and awareness for Safe Passage, a nonprofit organization based out of Maine and Guatemala.

Walters first volunteered for Safe Passage, or Camino Seguro in Spanish, nine years ago during a trip with members of Maine Rotary Clubs to Guatemala. The organization works with families who live in extreme poverty in a part of Guatemala City home to a massive garbage dump. The organization provides children with schooling and health care, while it also helps the parents start small businesses so they can break the cycle of relying on the garbage dump for food and clothing.

The organization says it serves 550 children from nearly 300 families. When Walters, a former provost at Unity College in Maine, made the trip to the dump herself, she decided then to devote most of her time to helping the organization.

Image: Children helped by Safe Passage send support
These children helped by Safe Passage sent this picture to Deborah Walters along with messages of support before she begins her journey from Maine to Guatemala. Safe Passage has provided hundreds of poor Guatemalan children with education and health care. Courtesy of Safe Passage

“Vultures were circling overhead,” Walters told NBC News, describing where these families live and work. “The mothers would say, ‘If only my children could go to school.’ That simple wish broke my heart.”

The organization, she said, presents another solution to the ongoing border crisis. Walters said that the work Safe Passage does improves the Guatemalan children’s lives to the extent that none have attempted to migrate to the U.S. like the more than 52,000 Central American children who have crossed the border since last October.

“We’re looking for the children to have opportunities for a safe life and education in Guatemala,” she said. “It’s another way of looking into how to solve the problem of the children coming across the borders.”

Walters now is a member of the organization’s Board of Directors and served as its president from 2009 to 2012. She travels to Guatemala twice a year, most recently going last October. That, however, was not enough for her. She first came up with the idea of her seafaring journey seven years ago, thinking it was the perfect blend of things she loved — Safe Passage and long-distance kayaking.

Walters has done other long-distance kayaking expeditions, including ones in the Arctic and along Canada’s maritime coast, but every thing fell into place recently for this latest plan. Given her ample and varied experience in canoes and kayaks, she figured that this trip wouldn't pose too great of a risk, either.

“Dealing with polar bears in the Arctic is much more of a challenge than dealing with New York City,” Walters said.

Still, her journey to Guatemala will not be an easy one. The route she will be kayaking is roughly equivalent to the distance between New York and Las Vegas. Walters planned herself everything from the precise itinerary she will take to how the trip will be financed.

Walters’ first leg will take her from Portland to Key West, Florida, mostly through the Intracoastal Waterway. When she originally came up with the idea to kayak to Central America, she had planned to then travel along the Mexican coast. But the presence of drug cartels along Mexico’s shores dissuaded her from doing so.

“The cartels don’t like visitors and tend to shoot at people in small crafts,” Walters said. “I’m a risk-taker, but I don’t take big risks like that.”

To avoid this, Walters will hitch a ride on a sailboat joined by Safe Passage's board president as well as the president of Polaris Capital Management, which is one of her sponsors. The sailboat will take her to Belize. From there, she will kayak Belize’s barrier reef to her finish in Guatemala, which she expects to reach next May.

Along the journey Walters will stop about every 10 miles so that she doesn’t injure herself. Walters suffers from arthritis and also has injuries from previous kayaking excursions.

“Since I’m no spring chicken, I’m pacing it very slowly,” Walters said, laughing.

During most of her stops, Walters plans to kayak or stay with volunteers in different cities and towns along the East Coast. Most of her gear was donated and the entire trip was financed through donations from sponsors who gave as much as $25,000 each toward the effort.

While making her pit stops along her route, Walters will be holding fundraisers and give presentations to people at libraries and churches. The money she earns will fund classrooms for third- and eventually fourth-grade students at the Guatemala City school Safe Passage runs.

Image: Deborah Walters poses with fellow kayakers
Deborah Walters stands with four people who kayaked with her from Yarmouth, Maine to Portland. She will embark from there on her journey to Guatemala, and along the way, she has plans to kayak with other volunteers like these Mainers. Chris Percival / Courtesy of Safe Passage

For most of her solo journey, these brief sojourns on land will represent her only contact with people. In the next year, she will seldom see her family, including her husband, Chris Percival, except for a few visits and some time during the holidays in Florida. But the prospect of all the people she will meet along the ride and the people she will help is what will keep her going.

“I love being out on the water ... but the thing that has struck my heart the most is the people,” Walters said. “I’m humbled by how many people have gotten on board.”