For Deb Walters, the scariest part of her kayaking trip from Maine to Key West happened off the Jersey shore, when she strayed into a security zone at a big munitions pier and was confronted by “a boatload of guys with guns who said they were authorized to shoot me.”

Then there was the emergency spinal surgery, severe flooding and close encounters with two hurricanes.

But Walters, a Troy resident who took the 2,500-mile solo expedition to raise money for the Maine-based nonprofit Safe Passage, managed to complete her journey in two parts and raise $425,000 along the way.

Safe Passage was founded by Bowdoin College graduate Hanley Denning, who was killed in an auto accident in Guatemala in 2007. The organization provides education, healthcare and community services to the children and families living in the Guatemala City garbage dump.

Walters, a Rotarian in her 60s, set off for Guatemala in July 2014. But after paddling down the East Coast for five months, she was forced to interrupt her trip to have emergency surgery to repair an old spinal injury. She continued her journey by car because she had speaking engagements already set up in Florida. She then took a sailboat from Florida to Guatemala, where she landed last April. At that point, she had raised $175,000 and Safe Passage held a big celebration. But to Walters, the expedition felt incomplete.

“I thought you know, that doesn’t properly honor the parents who work so hard because I said I was going to paddle at least 2,500 miles,” Walters said.

So, in September, Walters set out in her kayak again in South Carolina and on Jan. 30 landed in Key West – three miles over her goal.

The students helped by Safe Passage in Guatemala sent Walters a “rubber ducky” to travel with her and keep her company. Walters kept two blogs documenting her journey, one for adults and one for the kids.

“If there were scary bits coming up, the rubber duck would write about them,” she said.

Walters talked her way out of trouble at the munitions pier, but she couldn’t keep Mother Nature from sending bad weather.

In South Carolina, where she was hosted by a group of writers, she rode out Hurricane Joaquin in a little house on an island. She was alone because her host had not been able to get back to the island in time. As the water kept rising, she could hear trees falling when their roots became inundated with water.

“I was practically crying when the rain stopped and you could see the blue sky,” Walters said.

The money Walters raised already have been used to add two grades to the children’s school in Guatemala – third and fourth – and an after-school program has been expanded to all-day. And there’s more to come: The kayak journey raised enough money to add classes up to the sixth grade.

Walters credits a Guatemalan woman who has been helped by Safe Passage with giving her inspiration to complete the expedition. The woman told Walters her favorite saying was “If you believe you can do it, you can do it.”

“I can’t tell you how many times on this trip I’d get up in the morning and conditions would be bad and I didn’t want to go out,” Walters said, “but I kept going, knowing all I need to do is believe I could do it, and then I could do it.”

 


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