Come August, Michael Farley will be on an adventure for a cause. For the fifth time in 10 years, Farley, along with some 20 camels, their handlers and a band of volunteers, will begin a 10-day trek across the blistering desert in Kenya, traveling 16 to 18 miles a day over about 165 miles of sometimes-hostile tribal land on what he calls "a proper walk," to raise funds for the Makindu Children's Program (makindu.org), a nonprofit organization dedicated to children in Makindu, Kenya, primarily those orphaned by AIDS.
Inspired by a Peace Corps volunteer who visited his high school, Farley, a Los Angeles native and Wayne State graduate, began his own Peace Corps stint in October 1977. He was assigned to Makindu, a village about 100 miles southeast of Nairobi. "A hundred dirt-poor farmers trying to survive on 100 acres of arid land changed my life," says Farley, now 55. Whenever he's in Africa — he's visited 23 times since 1980 — Farley checks in on the farm cooperative he helped establish.
I learned about the walk in 2008 from Ashley Wolff, a past participant who taught one of my MFA courses at Hollins University. Every day before class, the California picture-book author and illustrator walked 10 miles in the suffocating July heat with her border collie, Lucy, climbing Roanoke's hills in preparation. I later discovered that Farley, who lives on a Louisa farm with his wife, Lee, initiated the walk.
Farley came to Virginia in 1980. At Elk Hill, a school for at-risk boys in Goochland, he rose from a part-time maintenance worker to teacher and counselor, then to director of programs and finally to executive director in 1999. "There were 20 boys when I started," he says. "We now serve 275 boys and 35 girls."
Helping children is a constant theme in Farley's life. A Baltimore foundation known as Abell opened a boarding school in 1997 to send inner-city boys to Kenya for a life-changing experience. Farley became a consultant for the foundation in 1998. "They sent me to Kenya twice a year for several years."
During one trip, Farley learned of a new children's center in Makindu. "Many children I'd known in the Peace Corps had died from AIDS, leaving their [own] children orphans, living on the streets."
The center needed money for health care, to subsidize guardian families and pay for schooling.
"Primary education was free, but secondary schooling wasn't," Farley says. "A child's tuition, uniforms and boarding cost $350 annually. The average Kenyan makes $1 a day."
Farley's fundraising inspiration came together when Jasper Evans, a native Kenyan ranch owner and a camel expert, told him that a "proper walk was one in which you walked many kilometers in a day, many days in a row, with uncertainty as to the outcome."
Farley was far from certain about the outcome when he and Evans, then 78, joined several others headed in 2002 for the Suguta Valley, known as the Valley of the Black Death because of its iridescent black lava.
"They say wisdom comes from bad experiences," Farley relates with a laugh. "We raised $43,000, but there were many physical, emotional and mental challenges." During a subsequent walk, a National Geographic writer and photographer documented challenges faced by Farley and his companions.
Evans died recently, but his daughter, Amanda Perrett, who owns the camels, has been the co-leader on the last three walks. Walkers must raise $10,000 and pay their own expenses. This summer, Farley hopes to raise $100,000 for the center, which now helps 444 children.
"I have an obligation to the Peace Corps," Farley says. "Through them, I learned that although I'm a fairly insignificant person, I can help others. One of the first kids in our program, a 10-year-old living on the streets, now attends law school in Uganda."
©Nancy W. Beasley 2010. All rights reserved.