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Trekking for Kids Week

Kids are often part and parcel of robotics science fiction. Where would Gundam, Transformers, Big Hero 6, Terminator 2 or even Blade Runner 2049 be without the added emotional impact of a kid trying to make his or her way in a world stacked against them? Which leads me to Trekking for Kids, an amazing charity that I hope you will contribute to and sponsor my volunteer work. Trekking for Kids was started by a group of engineers and scientists who loved hiking and trekking. As they went on vacation adventures, they followed the creed of leaving everything untouched, that you couldn’t tell anyone had been there and there was no impact on the ecology. But given that many of the most beautiful places are in economically desolate regions, it seemed ironic that all these tourists such as themselves were coming in and making no impact on the lives of the locals. Maybe you shouldn’t have an impact on the trail but you should have a positive impact on the people. So what if you set up an organization that trekkers would work, and raise money, for the locals before doing the trek? Something with a long lasting impact- like something for the kids, which are the future? Like kids in an orphanage, since most of the localities was already poor and so the orphanages were particularly in need? And thus began Trekking for Kids

Trekking for Kids is genuinely amazing. Jose and Cindy identify a good, functional orphanage (including checking it with the State Department, the local government, and the different international NGOs) that needs something physical, something permanent and long lasting— like a new roof, a playground, a new room. Similar to Habitat for Humanity. Then us trekkers agree to spend airfare, 3 days of time, and raise money for the cost of materials (plus some for toys and gifts, c’mon can’t just show up to a group of kids and not have some fun), then after working on-site, go off on the trek. Each trekker is expected to raise a minimum of money ($1K for small trips, $2K for big trips) from outside sources rather than just write a check because that way more people will learn about Trekking for Kids or just be more aware of the needs of kids or people in the local areas. (Trust me, I’d prefer to write a check rather than ask people for money, I know I get tired of the constant barrage. But the rules are that we have to raise external money so please visit and donate.)

Trekking for Kids puts a lot of effort into making sure the orphanage is legit, working with them to identify their needs (we don’t just show up and say “we’re here to build a playground, take it or leave it”), and that the project is of real, lasting value to the kids. Plus Trekking for Kids also helps the orphanage with administrative and fund-raising consulting- after decades, the organization has enough orphanages in its network and enough experience to be able to work as a support group to the orphanage administrators.

Trekking for Kids means a lot to me. I have been following and contributing to Trekking for Kids for several years and went on my first trek last year. That trip was to work at the Inspiration Center orphanage for special needs kids in Russia before climbing Mt. Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe. I was blown away by the experience. The orphanage had been started by a man who believed in art and creativity so the kids are embedded in a compound of connected houses where every nook and cranny has an activity that a kid can explore- painting, music, and pottery. We donated a pottery wheel along with the new roof because that was on their list. OK, sure, a pottery wheel... that didn’t seem important. Roofs important, pottery wheels, cute and why not? Well, watching a visually disabled child work with clay and water and feel it transform into something interesting to touch and even beautiful for others to behold is a heart-wrenching metaphor about being grounded and working with what you have on hand. A Moscow potter is donating his time to teach pottery and I imagine there will be a cottage industry and art show awards in the kids’ future. But that doesn’t matter, the kids lives were being enriched, given an outlet for their creativity and expressions right then and there. More pottery wheels for everyone is now my philosophy.

This year, Trekking for Kids is including a refugee camp in addition to orphanages. Refugee camps are full of conundrums. There’s government involvement but, as can be surmised from the news, it is not always effective. Here’s an example from Hurricane Katrina. FEMA had moved families to “FEMA trailers” parked on some abandoned land next to a large drainage ditch. Due to the devastation, the ditch was now carrying raw sewage from the broken infrastructure (flooding takes out all the pumps for the water and waste-water system). So without intending to, there is now kids playing by raw sewage and, of course, every now and then their soccer ball goes into the ditch and someone goes after it. Not good. A fence would be great, even one of those orange plastic ones that contractors put up.

One of my friends who was working in New Orleans as part of the response saw this and pointed it out to FEMA. To be fair, FEMA was overwhelmed as it was and there Is no bureaucratic To Do item on their list that says “protect de facto playgrounds.” The families had lost their cars, their garages with all their tools, and were dealing with the loss of jobs, infinite amounts of paperwork and insurance claims. So they knew they needed a fence along the ditch but they didn’t have the resources to build their own fence or even go to Home Depot (the nearest one was 86 miles away). My friend took the initiative, called some friends, they drove down in a pickup truck with the materials and tools and the parents joined in and knocked it out in a day.

I saw the same thing on Lesvos while working with the Syrian Boat Refugee crisis providing lifeguard assistant robots to help prevent the drownings. The UN was trying but they are really good with getting passports and food, less good about "ooops, how will the local waste water system handle 8,000 people which doubles the population of a resort island?" That’s the local government’s responsibility, but the local government is overwhelmed too. No wonder that things like "where are the kids going to play? Can we get them in school?" have to go to the bottom of the list. Just trying to keep people from drowning and getting them fed and sheltered was a huge achievement.

The Konic refugee camp, which is the oldest refugee camp in Europe, left over from the Bosnian war, is the same. Just getting everyone food and shelter was great, but as “temporary” became “more than one year,” the issues about the kids and how they were growing up became more obvious. The camp was set up away from the town because of land availability and other reasonable factors, except the unintended consequence was that the kids were pretty far from schools. And the camp isn’t on any bus route. They had no way to get to school. Finally, as the short, award winning documentary film here shows, they got a bus to come pick up the kids.

So in two weeks, I will be at the Konic refugee camp with my fellow Trekkers helping build bus stops so the kids (and parents shepherding the kids) have a place to stand out of the rain and snow. This was number 1 on the camp’s wish list. There number 2 apparently was a playground, but there was too much paperwork and regulations for an outside group to come in and build a playground that met local codes (and it is reasonable to have regulations about playgrounds, though it is a bit frightening to think that the camp has been there since 1990s- and there are no playgrounds.)

I hope you will make a small donation to Trekking for Kids and hope that in the future, kids won’t need robots as protectors and companions or something to rebel against.

- Robin

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