Barrett Keene, a Ph.D. student at Cornell University, is about 2,500 miles into his 3,475 mile journey, walking across America to benefit the Global Orphan Project.
Keene began his walk last January in Miami. He said he hopes to reach his destination, San Francisco, in mid-November. The objective is to raise enough money to fund the purchase of 3,000 school uniforms for orphans in one of 15 different target countries. This is through a GO Project initiative called GO Threads, Keene said.
Each uniform costs $20 and will give an orphaned or abandoned child the chance to get an education. So far, Barrett has raised more than $34,000, enough to purchase about 1,700 uniforms.
Keene said funding a uniform does much more than just send a child to school.
“It also creates jobs for parents in the same community through the Global Orphan Project, because they can sew those uniforms for a living wage and be able to provide for their own family,” Keene said.
Jake Barreth, director of operations in Haiti for the GO Project and Keene’s college roommate, was the reason Keene became involved with the organization.
“Barrett and I have been friends for a long time and we always will, and he'll probably always be a part of the Global Orphan Project,” said Keene.
Keene said he was inspired to do the walk to help the 145 million orphaned and abandoned children in the world, especially the children he met through the GO Project while visiting Barreth in Haiti.
“$20 gives a kid what they need to go to school, helps to fund a job for a parent and helps be able to feed and clothe and shelter orphaned and abandoned children,” Keene said. “So how can we just continue to go through our day when we can, in small ways, have such a big impact?”
While Keene’s walk is not an official initiative by the GO Project, Barreth said the amount of awareness Keene is raising is substantial.
Throughout his eight-month journey, Keene said, he estimates he has spread awareness of the project to more than 800,000 people through events and organizations.
He went into the journey without any travel or lodging plans, but he said he has found a host church or family every single night.
“You just never know what's going to happen, where you're going to sleep, who you're going to be hanging with, but it's a beautiful, worthwhile adventure,” Keene said.
There are no concrete plans for Keene to stay involved with the GO Project after his walk, but Barreth said he would probably always be a part of the organization.
“Everyone in the office knows him and loves him, and who knows what the relationship may or may not turn into in the future, but I'd be surprised if it ended here,” Barreth said.
Kent Esslinger, a sophomore at Cornell, met Keene last year during his orientation week. Originally from Minnesota, Esslinger joined Keene in central Kansas this summer to accompany him for three weeks of his journey.
Esslinger said the generosity he witnessed while walking with Keene was incredible.
“I'd never spent that much time before in very-small-town America,” he said. “The hospitality we experienced and the open arms we had from people was amazing.”
Keene said the awareness for the project has been growing rapidly across the communities along his route. Denise Walker, despite being confined to a wheelchair, organized a 10-mile walk along the Tampa Bay coast that raised more than $2,000. A group of Cornell students are running a half-marathon and getting sponsored to benefit the project. Other students are organizing trips to Haiti to work with some of the GO Project’s orphans. A pair of twins in Kansas City has decided that for their 10th birthday party, they want their friends to fund uniforms for GO Threads in place of traditional birthday presents.
“It's just beautiful, especially just to see kids serving kids, and having some sort of recognition of how blessed we are,” Keene said.
Esslinger said Keene’s dedication to the project is what got other people interested in it.
“I realized the simple truth that, if you want people to take you seriously and if you want to support something that you really believe in, then you have to do something that shows you're very passionate about it,” Esslinger said.
Keene will make his way through Salt Lake City, Lake Tahoe and Sacramento in the next two months before reaching his destination in San Francisco. He said his future plans may include moving to Uganda to work with Africans on developing companies and farms that help benefit the GO Project.
Keene is more than two-thirds of the way through his journey, but he said he is worried about his last 1,000-mile stretch. He will be walking across the deserts of Utah and Nevada and the Western half of the Rocky Mountains without a walking partner or driver to supply him with water.
Though Keene has had a difficult journey so far, and faces an even more difficult one ahead, he said he has to keep moving forward.
“It’s going to be a growing experience, and a horrible and beautiful experience for me, but those are all the things involved in service, right?”