For 14 hours, they walked with determination. When they could have been resting at home on spring break, they instead covered more than 37.5 miles on foot, hiking from East Aurora High School to the city of Chicago.
When the students and staff left 500 Tomcat Lane at 5:15 a.m. Wednesday, March 26, the walk seemed improbable. And along the journey – as blisters built up or exhaustion set in – it might have seemed impossible. But at 7:15 p.m., when they arrived at Soldier Field, the students realized they’d accomplished something they would always remember.
“This is something they’ll take with them for the rest of their lives, that they’ll tell their kids about,” said East Aurora High School English teacher Shane Gillespie, who organized the walk. “It makes all the insanity of walking thirty seven and half miles worth it.”
The students walked to honor Ismael Beah, a former child soldier from Sierra Leone who will speak at the high school in April. As a child, Beah had to walk from village to village to escape rebel soldiers. The walk gave the students a new appreciation for Beah’s experience.
“The support I have on my feet: I don’t think he had any of that,” said East Aurora High School senior Kendall McCarter, as he stretched 21 miles into the walk. “And this was daily, he couldn’t stop. It must have been terrible for him.”
For the last six years, Gillespie has taught “Survivor Literature”, a class he created. The class focuses on analyzing literature about people who have survived despite tremendous obstacles.
Each year, the students pick one independent study topic they want to research for a service project. In past years, students helped victims of Hurricane Katrina and met survivors of the Holocaust and Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
This year, students chose to read Beah’s 2007 book, “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier”. In the book, Beah writes about how he became separated from his family and, at 13, was recruited by the government Army. Beah gives a first-person account of how a gentle boy participated in horrible acts until he was rescued.
Beah now speaks around the world, raising awareness about child soldiers.
On April 15, he will speak to East Aurora High School classes, including many of the students who participated in the walk. At 7 p.m. Beah will give a speech in the Hawks Auditorium at East Aurora High School. The speech is open to the general public. Tickets are $5.
In order to bring in Beah, the students needed to pay for his plane ticket, accommodations and modest speaking fee. They came up with the idea of a big walk.
Almost 70 students left the high school more than an hour before the sun rose and headed East. They crossed through at least 12 towns, following sidewalks and trails toward Chicago.
Vans driven by several East Aurora staff members trailed the group with food and water. Most students walked four of the five legs of the trip, resting on the remaining leg in a van. Seven students and Gillespie walked the entire 37.5 miles.
All of the students walked up to Soldier Field together, triumphantly posing for a picture in front of the stadium
“I don’t think the reality set until they got to the stadium,” Gillespie said. “You thought they would have just collapsed but they were really excited.”
Gillespie pointed out that although the students were in a large group, the act of walking is still a solitary experience, one that echoed Beah’s own struggle.
At the end of the day, the East Aurora students received a Twitter message from Beah, who was following the walk. “Amazing!” he wrote. “I’m very touched, guys! Thank you.”
Although the walk is finished, donations are still being accepted at http://www.gofundme.com/EAHStomcats.The students need to raise about $7,500. Any additional funds raised will be donated to Beah’s charity.