Safe Passage: Paddling 2,500 miles for the kids of Guatemala

By on November 30, 2014


Deborah Walters’ journey will take her 2,500 miles and one year. Below, Walters with one of the Safe Passage children. (Safe Passage photos)

Deb and Osman better cropped

Maine resident Deborah Walters is not your typical grandmother.

At 63, this vibrant and energetic woman has logged about 1,000 miles of a 2,500-mile journey from Maine to Guatemala. It may be her own version of the Appalachian Trail, but it’s by water – in a kayak.

And while the expedition may not be easy, her goal is pretty straightforward.

She hopes to raise enough money to add two grade levels to a Guatemala City school operated by Safe Passage, which provides education and social services to impoverished children and their families living in the region.

“Most people – when they hear what I am doing – tell me I must be completely nuts. They say, ‘Why would anyone in their right mind do that? What went wrong in your life?’

“But the only thing I can tell them is what went right in my life, and that was to go on a trip to Guatemala with fellow Rotary Club members and see the garbage dump,” she said.

The dump serves about 9 million people in and around Guatemala City, but is also where thousands of impoverished Guatemalans scavenge for food, clothing and items to recycle and sell, Walters told the North Beach Rotary Club during a stopover on the Outer Banks last week.

After a short break for Thanksgiving, she departs Monday on the Alligator River, where she will travel 50 miles in two days before arriving in Belhaven, N.C. She left Maine July 11 on an expedition that is expected to take a year.

With a contagious smile, Walters explains how this adventure combines her passion for paddling with a deep personal calling to help the children in Guatemala City.

Long distance kayaking is nothing new for Walters. This is a woman who considers kayaking and backpacking in the Artic’s Northwest Passage a vacation.

As of last week, she had reached 68 percent of her fundraising goal of $150,000.

A retired neurophysiologist and grandmother of four, Walters has kayaked through 10 states since she launched off Yarmouth, Maine in mid-July. She has four states to go — and then two countries. The final stretch of her trip will be along a barrier reef and open coast to Rio Dulce in Guatemala.

Along the way, she has been staying with fellow Rotarians and paddlers.

“This route is a little different than what I’m used to,” she jokes. “It’s a little warmer. People say I left a little late in the season, but looking at it from my perspective, it is always going to be warmer than Maine in October.”

The heartwarming story of this motivated woman has attracted nationwide media attention, being picked up by national news networks such as NBC, ABC and FOX. “There was one day I was on 118 television channels across the country.”

The trip has not always been smooth sailing, but Walters takes all of the weather, wind and waves in stride. She says there is not much that will beach her kayak. Maybe a hurricane, like Cristobal in late August, or 25 mph winds across the Albemarle Sound. But that’s about it.

She’s been hit with small craft advisories, dense fog, challenging currents and what she describes as “accidental surfing,” in which she got caught in some heavy surf trying to navigate a sandbar. The only condition that stops her is strong wind. In foul weather, she says, she often feels much like a duck.

On average, Walter covers about 16 miles per day.

Her story, she says, captures so much attention because she believes it inspires others to act on the dreams they may have been putting off. But her inspiration, she says, has always been the Guatemalan people who so desperately need some hope and help.

She often shares the story of Myrna, a Guatemalan mother Walters met who was abandoned as a baby and by the age of 5, was supporting herself in the garbage dump. She became addicted to drugs early in life and nearly lost her own children before discovering Safe Passage.

Now drug-free, Myrna can read and write while her children are enrolled in school and have dreams of being a veterinarian and accountant.

“I asked Myrna what her dreams were when she was young, and she told me she didn’t have any. She said, ‘I wasn’t living. I was only surviving.’c”

But now the mother’s outlook has changed, Walters said. “When I asked what message I could share with people I met on my journey, she told me, ‘If you believe you can do it, you can do it.’ ”

To learn more about Safe Passage or to follow Walter’s progress, go to

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