Waking up in a teepee after crossing the border into Jensen, Utah, Barrett Keene’s grad body ached.
“Everyday, my body hurts … literally, everyday,” Keene said.
A Cornell graduate student, Keene has been walking across America for more than seven months to raise money for and awareness about the world’s orphans and abandoned children. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, there are between 143 and 210 million orphans worldwide.
Partnered with the Global Orphan Fund, a non-profit that provides school uniforms to orphans in Haiti and Uganda, Keene said he is attempting to help those who cannot help themselves.
“I was fortunate to serve in orphanages in Central and South America, and in my experience, when it comes down to it, we tend to as a society act like [the plight of orphans] isn’t happening,” Keene said.
Keene’s “Go Walk America” trek began on Jan. 28th and will take him 3,475 miles from Miami to San Francisco. The walk, however, is more than just a fundraising drive: It also operates as an opportunity for Keene to speak with communities across the country about how to foster community service.
“We’ve been able to raise awareness to connect with over 800,000 people so far, and I’ve been able to talk to 33,000 people face-to-face speaking at churches, rotary clubs, schools and universities,” Keene said. Last week, Keene talked to a football team about “leading, caring and giving,” and after crossing into Utah, he was scheduled to speak at a regional track meet.
“It’s beautiful, and it’s transforming my life,” Keene said.
Kent Esslinger ’15 walked the 315 miles from central Kansas to Lyman, Colo., with Keene for three and half weeks this summer.
“I think each place we stayed at was more blessed by the story behind [Keene]. He helped them catch a vision of something that they’re passionate about,” Esslinger said. “It was more than about just getting as much money as possible between Miami and San Francisco.”
Students who walked with Keene said his enthusiasm and passion were addictive.
Michael Sugihara ’13, who accompanied Keene for six and half weeks this summer, recalled that children age 10 to 12 would walk with them for between 12 and 16 miles — and then donate some of their own money to the cause.
“To see their hearts turn toward service in that way, it was neat for me to see,” Sugihara said.
Keene said his passion for helping orphans began when he was still an undergraduate at the University of Florida.
“I was able to go down to Panama …. [It was the] first time I was around complete and total abject poverty, folks living in homes I could not even imagine,” Keene said. He said he also brought supplies to and worked with orphans in Guatemala.
In addition to engaging in community service, Keene said his walk across America has allowed him to lead a nationwide study for his Cornell dissertation on leadership. He said he is studying how middle school and high school teachers “can affect leaders in their classroom.”
“A lot of research has been done on leaders in the business and corporate world; not a lot of research has been done with studying teachers as leaders,” said Kristen Steves ’13, who leads Keene’s research team.
So far, after walking 2,400 miles, Keene has raised $34,000 for 1,700 uniforms and said he hopes to eventually raise $55,000. Now, with 1,000 miles left to go, Keene is asking for a two-penny-per-mile donation.
Keene said he hopes to devote much of his life to helping orphans both by raising awareness and donating a substantial portion of his income to the cause. For now, though, Keene is still focused on the journey at hand.
“I have to walk through the deserts of Utah and Nevada — and don’t think that’s not intimidating for me,” he said. Reflecting on the sheer magnitude of the journey, Keene added, “It’s kind of crazy, right?”