Hunger doesn’t take the weekend off: An interview with Joanne and Emily-anne Griffiths

Joanne and Emily-anne Griffiths are a mother-daughter powerhouse. Joanne Griffiths, the mom, is a committed philanthropist and a well-known name in Canada’s charitable sector. As a founding member of Canuck Place, Canuck Foundation and a volunteer in various children’s charities, she has been involved in promoting, participating and fundraising for worthwhile causes that have raised over $15 million to better the community.

Proof that the apple does not fall far from the tree, Emily-anne is following closely in the philanthropic footsteps of her mom. Growing up, Emily-anne participated in many volunteer activities, including a service project that took her to Thailand. After graduating from university, she moved back to Vancouver and began volunteering with her mother.

In 2012, the duo started a grassroots charity called Community First Foundation to help be part of the solution to child hunger in Vancouver. This led to the founding of their flagship program, Backpack Buddies, which provides healthy, nutritious meals to inner-city school children on the weekends. Now in its third year, the program supplies over 400 kids with enough food to last the weekend throughout the entire school year.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Joanne and Emily-anne about Backpack Buddies, and what it’s like to work with each other.

Can you tell us a little about Backpack Buddies and how it works?

EAG: The Backpack Buddies Program seeks to address the childhood hunger gap over the course of the weekend. Many programs exist in schools Monday through Friday to ensure children are receiving enough to eat. However, these same children who rely on school meal programs often go home to little or nothing to eat over the weekend. That’s where we come in.

Backpack Buddies is a unique program that addresses a very real need in the Vancouver community while providing a tangible opportunity for children to help other children.

The concept is simple. Children that are fortunate enough to be living and attending school without worrying about where their next meal is coming from are invited to join the program. They have fundraisers, hold food drives and pack backpacks full of enough food to feed children throughout the weekend. Next, our volunteers pick up the backpacks and deliver them to the schools that need them. It’s simple but requires a great deal of work.

Typical content of backpack (Photo by Wendy D Photography)
Typical content of backpack (Photo by Wendy D Photography)

 

What compelled you to start Backpack Buddies?  Was there a particular “light bulb moment” that motivated you to take action?

JG: I was compelled to start Backpack Buddies after talking to an outreach worker at Grandview School. I had been trying to put in a community rooftop garden but ran into all sorts of problems with permitting and so forth. I got to know Aeryn Williams, the outreach worker, through the community garden process. When it became apparent that the garden was not going to be permitted, I asked her what was the greatest need of the children in the school. She immediately said weekend hunger, when school programs were not in operation. Hence Backpack Buddies was born.

EAG: Initially, the goal was to build gardens at various schools within the inner city. The harvest from the gardens would then go directly into the schools meal programs. However, due to a lot of bureaucracy, and several doors slammed in our faces, we realized that this was not going to happen.

Through the process of exploring this idea, the issue of childhood weekend hunger was brought to Joanne’s attention – mostly through conversations she had with teachers in the schools we initially approached about building gardens. She came to me with this information and we decided then and there that we were going to do something.

When we realized just how extensive childhood weekend hunger is in this city, we couldn’t just sit on this information. We knew it was up to us to do something.

One of the things I like about Backpack Buddies is how it involves children from more affluent neighbourhoods, and gives them an opportunity to practice giving from an early age. From your experience, what are the most important lessons that the kids from the donor schools learn through the program?

EAG: The Backpack Buddies Program offers students from varying backgrounds the opportunity to help their peers. This is very empowering for the students on the donor end. They know they are making a difference, right now.

What’s unique about our program is that it’s a real and tangible experience. Each week, students physically pack the backpacks we deliver. This causes them to think and reflect upon the work they are doing. It’s incredible to see how motivated the students are. There are so many fundraising initiatives that these students participate in – however, they typically raise money and then send the money somewhere else. They don’t have the opportunity to see what their efforts have achieved. That’s what is so special about our program. There is a real connection between the students.

Lastly, we open up a dialogue with the students. We have conversations with them about the children they are helping. To me, there is very little sense of community today. There is “us” and there is “them”. Through our program, we try to break this idea down. We have a simple conversation around the idea that we are all the same at the end of the day. Some people may have more than others, and if you are fortunate enough it is your duty to help others.

I believe the act is equally as important as the result.

Pop up lunch organized during a recent teacher strike, which ensured that children would continue to receive healthy meals during the strike (Photo by Wendy D Photography)
Pop up lunch organized during a recent teacher strike, which ensured that children would continue to receive healthy meals during the strike (Photo by Wendy D Photography)

 

And what about the kids in the recipient schools? Besides the much-needed food they receive, what do you think the program teaches them?

JG: I think it lets them know that there other kids in this world that actually care about what happens to them.

EAG: That someone cares. Some of the children in our program have very tough home lives, and our program lets them know that someone out there cares about them.

At Christmas time, students at one of the donor schools (through their own initiative) created 150 handmade Christmas cards. They added one to each of the backpacks for that week’s delivery. These small gestures go above and beyond and let the children know that we care about them.

The fact that you started and run the charity with your daughter/mom is pretty amazing. What’s it like to work so closely with her?

JG: To work with my daughter has been a gift. We work together as a team playing off of each others strengths. She keeps me organized and brings me back when my goals become too focused on the future rather than what we are working on in the present. We disagree on occasion but get over it quickly.

EAG: It is a blessing and a curse! We challenge each other constantly, but I think that’s part of what makes us work.

Unlike your common workplace, if we disagree on an idea we really voice our opinions. However, we are always able to take a step back and realize when the other is right. We always put our cause before our egos. That’s the most important thing.

We balance each other really well. If I am worried about something, she lifts me up and assures me we are on the right path. And vise versa.

It’s a very interesting dynamic, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Joanne and Emily-anne Griffiths having some fun during a delivery at Queen Alexandra School (Photo by Wendy D Photography)
Joanne and Emily-anne Griffiths having some fun during a delivery at Queen Alexandra School (Photo by Wendy D Photography)

 

If you had to choose one thing, what’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from your daughter/mom through your work with Backpack Buddies?

JG: The one thing I have learned is I have one heck of an amazing daughter who is dedicated to helping people in need.

EAG: Never, ever give up. My mom’s perseverance is second to none. Plain and simple.

Giving has a karmic boomerang effect: The more you give, the more that comes back to you. How has your charitable work impacted your own life?

JG: It’s not so much a karmic effect but more of a blessing to be in a position to be able to do what I do. To impact people’s lives in a positive way and knowing that you are making a difference is in and of itself a reward.

EAG: For me, things have really fallen into place in my life over the last year. I have pursued my dream of Community First Foundation and our Backpack Buddies Program with blind faith that I will succeed. And I have. Through this, things in my personal life have really flourished.

I wouldn’t necessarily attribute this to my work through the charity, but more so to faith that I am on the right path. Belief in yourself and your goals is incredibly powerful. Although, I suppose the karmic boomerang helps a little!

Finally, what advice do you have for someone who wants to get more involved with philanthropy or charitable work?

JG: Starting your own charity is hard work. There are a lot of charities out there already vying for an ever shrinking pool of money. If I were to say one thing, it would be follow your passion, whatever it may be. My passion is and has always been helping children. All of my successes have been centred around making the world an easier place for them, no matter what their burden.

EAG: For anyone that has a desire to get more involved in charitable work I simply say do it. But don’t do it for any other reason than you simply want to help. The most important thing is that you find a cause that you feel a connection with or that you are passionate about.  Passion trumps all!

Visit the Community First Foundation website for more information about Backpack Buddies, or to help support the program.

Living off the grid: An interview with Masa Takei

Have you ever dreamed of trading in the daily grind of city living for a simpler, more rustic lifestyle somewhere in God’s Country? Anyone who has been on the 9-to-5 treadmill long enough can probably relate to this brand of fantasy.

Masa Takei, a freelance writer from Vancouver, had that dream too. But here’s the difference between Masa and the rest of us: he decided to act on it. In Spring 2011, Masa left his busy life in Vancouver with a single-minded purpose. He would travel to Haida Gwaii, a remote archipelago on the North Coast of British Columbia, to build a small cabin and live off-the-grid for a whole year. What started as a one year experiment turned into two-and-a-half years of living.

Now back in Vancouver, Masa is currently writing about his journey building a cabin, and a new life, on Haida Gwaii. I recently had the chance to ask Masa about living off-the-grid, as well as his career and life-long love of the outdoors.

Masa, I’ve got to ask, what compelled you to trade your life in the city for one in the remote shores of Haida Gwaii?

MT: At some point, I had this realization that I’d managed to live almost four decades without ever physically building anything, let alone the shelter that I lived in. I’d never grown, gathered or otherwise harvested the food that I ate, beyond the odd fish and handful of berries. I hadn’t done anything to keep myself warm, dry, and fed other than pay someone, or rather some complex system of supply chains, to do it for me. What other animal can reach maturity and still be completely incapable of directly securing the basics of life? A house cat? Have we essentially domesticated ourselves? I’d still give the cat an edge over your average urbanite, if you were to drop both into the middle of the Great Bear Rainforest, or whatever tract of wilderness there may be left out there.

The whole thing seemed, I don’t know, unfortunate, to me. I wanted to know what if felt like to build my own home. To understand, not just intellectually, that if I’m eating meat, that it’s the flesh of another living creature.  And to go through the physical labour of hunting and processing the animal to get it onto my plate. That direct effort and involvement, I have found helps in truly valuing and appreciating my food. Getting out, you also can’t help but observe the natural connections and interdependencies within the world beyond what we’ve paved or boxed in.

If that line of thinking seems abstract, conceptual, I’d say that up to that point, my life had been all about dealing in abstractions, shuffling symbols across the page or screen.  I didn’t work with anything concrete, that you could touch.  Quite simply my plan was to build a cabin and live in it.  I started with peeling the price tags off my tools.  I grew a huge ‘Jafro.’ The year turned into two and a half. If it wasn’t for certain personal circumstances I would probably still be up there.

Masa's cabin on the shores of Haida Gwai (Photo by Masa Takei)
Masa’s cabin on the shores of Haida Gwai (Photo by Masa Takei)

 

What does it mean exactly to live “off the grid”? Did you impose any rules or restrictions on yourself?

MT:  The one thing that I didn’t want it to be was some sort of stunt, like a Year of Living Biblically (a fine book nonetheless). I had no rules per se, since I wasn’t out to prove anything.  I just wanted to satisfy my own curiosity. The “off grid” expression has become popular as shorthand for those disconnecting themselves from society, temporarily or otherwise.  In the literal sense it means not being connected to the electricity grid, and I suppose other utilities such as water and sewage. Symbolically, it’s about severing dependence on the infrastructure and tethers of modern society. In reality, we will always be dependent on the world at large, no matter what kind of bubble we build for ourselves. My desire was to live in a particular spot, among a particular community of people, and be able to build without worrying about code. The fact that I used a generator for my power, captured rain for my water, and dug a hole for an outhouse was almost beside the point.

Now for some levity. What was your most foolish “city slicker living in the wilderness” moment?

MT:  The cabin was from the school of ‘bush building’ or ‘chainsaw carpentry.’ Rough and rustic. Even so, the trifecta of plumb, level, and square still has relevance. The first week of work, I was so concerned with dragging materials up to the site and getting wood up quickly, that I buried the 16-foot raw poles that were the backbone of my cabin a few inches off here and there. Those inches rippled throughout the building process and probably added hundreds of hours of extra labour throughout the rest of my first year.

It must have been a truly life-altering experience. What were some of the big life lessons you learned along the way?

MT: That question could fill a book. The short answer is that I thought that the experience would be about learning self-sufficiency, instead I learned the real importance of community.

I held myself back by trying to get things right but the most valuable lessons came from making mistakes. Lots of mistakes. I wished that I’d just made mine more quickly.

There’s a lot of talk about gratitude these days. I suspect though, that human nature is such that true appreciation only comes when loss or scarcity has a deep impact on our everyday lives. That last thought fills me with dread.

What is it about being outdoors and in the wild that you love so much?

MT: A friend, Charles Montgomery, who has written a very successful book (Happy City) about how specific aspects of urban living affects our well-being, introduced me to the term, “biophilia” meaning roughly, “the love of living things.” The idea is that we’re evolutionarily hardwired to like nature. Just being in nature makes us feel good. That sounds about right to me.

Although, I sincerely do enjoy spending time exploring cities like New York or Paris, I feel safe in saying that I would prefer to be in any truly natural setting than any random city block on earth. In the same vein, I can’t think of a single manmade structure that I would rather see in place of a stand of old-growth trees.  As amazing as the iPhone 6 is (and iPhone 26 will undoubtedly be) I couldn’t imagine any piece of consumer electronics being as beautifully designed — for form and function — as say, a wild salmon. When a guide I had on a trip up the BC coast, explained to me that the salmon we watched spawning in the rivers fed not only the bears and eagles and a myriad of other life in the ecosystem but that their decomposing bodies also fertilized the thousand-year-old cedars (even ones far inland, the salmon being transported as bear shit), I realized how little I really understood or truly gave thought to how ‘nature’ actually works.

This despite professing to being a great lover of nature and all the time I’d spent pedalling, paddling, planting, hiking, climbing, skiing etc. in the outdoors.  Much like how little I know about how the human body works, despite being an owner and regular user of one.  I still abuse mine with blissful half-ignorance, such as by not letting it move and work as it was designed to and sticking it in a chair for hours at a time, staring at a glowing screen.  All of which will come back to haunt me, I’m sure. As they say, sitting will be the new smoking.

I’ve lived in Vancouver, a coastal city, for over thirty years. Until I got back from living on the beach on Haida Gwaii, I was completely unaware that tides had any pattern or changed on a daily basis. If this is from someone who actively pursues opportunities to get out in nature what can be expected from someone who has never had any contact with the natural world beyond a city park and what’s more has no desire to have any more? They will know more and care more about the iPhone 7.

You’re now working on a book based on your time in Haida Gwaii. Can you tell us a little about it?

MT: Technically, I’m still working on the book proposal.  If there’s any more painful process than actually writing something slated for publication, it’s continually writing about what you’re going to write about. Anyway, it is for me.  My agent has been very patient. Roughly, the idea is to use my journey as your average, urban guy, who transplants into a tiny community on a remote island and attempts to build a simple cabin and lead a simpler life. The narrative is an excuse to explore everything around that time-honoured fantasy of retreating to a cabin in the woods, or what’s referred to these days as going ‘off-grid.’  What does this mean in the context of a modern world defined by ever-increasing connection and convenience, yet with diminishing depth to our relationships and quality of our lives? Is going ‘back to basics’ even a viable option anymore? Can one still actually ‘live off the land’?  I’ve found the appropriate tone for a book like this, to be elusive. I have no desire to be a big bummer, yet it’s impossible not to sail these waters and not bump up against some large rocks below. I’m staying away from straight memoir (like a guy’s journey to man-up: Build, Hunt, Surf).  Right now, I have several members of my imaginary editorial board: Bill McKibben, Bill Bryson, and Bill Murray as the Chair.

Masa, you write primarily about travel and adventure in the outdoors. Many would consider this a dream job. When did you know this is what you wanted to do for a living, and how did you make it happen?

MT: I wish that I had a sexy ‘origin story’ with a dramatic moment of clarity.  It was more of a tortuous stretch of time in my early-30s when I questioned everything that I had been pursuing up to that point. Business casual, cubicles, PowerPoint packs. I was just not excited by any of it. I’d written my first magazine piece in Japan, years before I’d come back to do an MBA but it never occurred to me that people could do that for a living. (Some would argue that you can’t.) I believe that it was around the time that I was doing some particularly soulless work for a client, in a windowless office, surrounded by boxes of spreadsheets that I began to think seriously about doing something that I could be stoked about.

Like a good consultant, I then conducted “informational interviews” with working writers, informal “benchmarking” and “best practices” surveys, ‘pros and cons’-type exercises. But your gut is way smarter than your brain for knowing what it is that you really want. Although, I also went on a ‘vision quest’ of sorts, sat alone for three days on a mountaintop with nothing but water and a sleeping bag, waiting for a clear sign to guide me in what I should do. My spirit animal never did come with an engraved message. Eventually, I had a supportive partner who got tired of my fence-sitting and told me to either put up or shut up. I got an internship at a magazine and sat in a cubicle next to interns a decade younger. It got me started. Then it was a matter of writing, hustling, and ignoring the pathetic whimperings of my ego.

Setting out on a stand up paddle expedition through the Great Bear Rainforest (Photo by Taylor Kennedy)
Setting out on a stand up paddle expedition through the Great Bear Rainforest (Photo by Taylor Kennedy)

 

It’s inspiring how you you’ve developed your writing career around something you deeply care about. Would you say you’ve found your true calling?

MT: I’d always said that the one thing that I wanted to do is work outside.  My education and career choices seem to have run counter to that one desire. (I switched from studying geography to economics before consulting and the MBA.)  Even now, I probably spend more time at a keyboard than outside.  All I can say is that I still enjoy what it is that I’m doing, even if I find the writing process generally painful. My dirty secret, is that my motivation to write seems to come not from a pure love of the written word or even ‘the outdoors,’ but from being able to go places that I want to go, do things that I want to do, and spend time with the people I find fascinating. Very often there is no other reasonable excuse besides writing about the experience to do any of that.  If I find a better one, I may switch.

You spent seven years working for international consulting firms. Then you made, what many people would consider, a risky decision to leave a lucrative career path to become a freelance writer. What compelled you to take this leap of faith?

MT: I realize now that there would have been nothing that I’d regret more than not having at least given it a solid shot. And it would have just become harder to make the change the longer I waited.  Money is a renewable resource, time is not.  Besides, I was regularly having what one colleague called ‘Suicide Sundays.’  You know, where your guts start churning Sunday afternoon and thinking about Monday morning’s status meeting.  Having said that, I’ve had a churning gut doing what I do now. Like when I’m facing a hard deadline and the writing or reporting is going terribly. Or perhaps someone has acted badly (and perhaps that person was me). Every line of work is going to have some ‘shit bits.’  Even if you make the leap it’s not all rainbows and clouds of butterflies.  But if you’re willing to accept the shit to do what you want to do, it’s more palatable than dealing with crap to do something you don’t.  I’m probably oversimplifying here.

Masa working hard on his last magazine assignment. There are the odd rainbows. (Photo by Jeff Topham)
Masa working hard on his last magazine assignment. There are the odd rainbows. (Photo by Jeff Topham)

 

Finally, what advice do you have for others who want to make a big career change to focus on their own passion?

MT: Money is a major concern for many and it is important. I dropped my income by 90% from one year to the next. I ‘made’ more money never working a single day for one consulting firm (from a signing bonus and severance pay during the dot-com crash) than I did during my first three years of writing full-time. Moonlighting and making a gradual transition may be a better option for some. Needing less by keeping overhead low is also a good strategy. The many, petty humiliations that can come from being an adult without making an adult income is good for developing humility. You may find though that at some point, you feel like you’ve developed enough humility.

All that said, the best acid-test that I’ve heard of is to ask yourself, ‘if money wasn’t a concern what would I roll out of bed each day and do?’  If you can figure out how to eventually make a living doing just that, then that sounds like a clear win to me.

Masa Takei writes primarily about being outside and the people you find there. Publications he’s written for include Canadian Geographic, Explore Magazine, The Walrus, and The Globe and Mail. Visit www.takei.ca for more information.

Walking to Japan: An interview with Carolyn Affleck Youngs

If there’s such a thing as a walking guru, Carolyn Affleck Youngs just might be one. Among many other walks, she has done the Camino pilgrimage route in Spain several times, and has walked all the streets in Vancouver, Canada. Carolyn is a writer and photographer – and life-long pedestrian – who lives in Victoria, Canada. Her forthcoming book, Walking to Japan, is her late-husband’s memoir of lessons from the road, learned and lived one step at a time (co-authored with Derek Walker Youngs).

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Carolyn about her walking adventures – both locally and afar – and the lessons she’s learned along the way.

Carolyn, you’ve been on some epic walking trips all over the world. If you had to pick one, which journey was the most memorable?

CAY: That’s a surprisingly tough question, Joe, as I’ve had so many memorable walks.  I could talk about my very first pilgrimage on St James’ Way (the Camino) – 800 kilometres across the north of Spain, through a variety of terrain and cultures, where I was walking through history, literally retracing the footsteps of millions of pilgrims before me.  Or I could describe a harrowing hike along the coast in Cornwall, England, when gusts of wind and rain threatened to sweep me off the slick trails and over the cliffs onto the sea.  But I want to tell you about my most recent walk in the USA.

I joined an organized walk with Japanese Buddhist monks and their supporters.  These monks, of the Nipponzan Myohojo order, are activists, who, after the ravages of WWII in Japan, got off their meditation cushions and started to walk for peace.  This particular walk ended with a 24-hour protest at a Trident submarine base not too far (as the crow flies) from my home in Victoria, Canada.  The weather was extreme, with temperatures reaching almost 35 degrees Celsius, and we spent five to six hours a day traipsing along the side of the highway, single file.  There was little banter or conversation to lighten the mood.  But we drummed and chanted their Japanese prayer for peace the whole way, except when breaking for water or lunch.  I was timid about this at first, and I thought that the repetitiveness might drive me crazy, but in fact it did the opposite.  It induced a meditative state that rendered the heat and thirst and hard pavement insignificant.  For days after the walk, I heard the drums and chanting in my head.  I’ll never forget the sound.

Carolyn Affleck Youngs enjoying a summer walk on the beach in Yorkshire, England (Photo by Cynthia Monroe)
Carolyn Affleck Youngs enjoying a summer walk on the beach in Yorkshire, England (Photo by Cynthia Monroe)

 

And what’s on the horizon? Do you have any walking trips coming up?

CAY: I have nothing definite planned, but I hope to return soon to Japan.  In 2005, I did part of a Buddhist pilgrimage there, to ten of 88 temples along a 1500 km route.  As I don’t speak Japanese, the whole thing was very mysterious to me, and the trail was rather quiet, as I was there in August, which is horribly hot and humid.  So I’ll return either in cherry blossom season or in autumn, as the maples are busting out in crimson splendor!

Shikoku pilgrimage trail in Japan (Photo by Carolyn Affleck Youngs)
Shikoku pilgrimage trail in Japan (Photo by Carolyn Affleck Youngs)

 

Of course, you don’t have to go half way around the world to enjoy a good walk. When you’re at home, what does the quintessentially perfect walk look like for you?

CAY: I prefer to walk alone but social walks are fun too, although they’re slower than my normal pace, which is okay, but it’s bit of a balancing act for me when my attention is split between my companion and the scenery.  I am such a visual person.  My every-day default walk goes through several blocks in my neighbourhood and then up Mount Douglas.  It’s really a hill – I can reach the top from my back door in just over half an hour.   I love walking in nature, and how that settles my mind, but my favourite walks are where nature intersects the urban.  I’m happy if I can do my shopping and get to appointments on foot, avoiding heavy traffic streets if possible, and sticking to pretty, treed streets.  If I don’t have errands, then I’ll look on the map and choose somewhere new to explore.  I’ll set aside at least an hour at the very least, but I’ll often take two or three.  I pick a start and end point, but what happens in the middle is entirely up to chance.  I’ll veer off onto some unfamiliar street, and find a cluster of interesting historical homes and pretty gardens, and maybe a little trail between those houses to a neighbourhood park tucked up on a hill.  Then I’ll sit and enjoy the view before moving on.  And Victoria, with its winding roads, is an easy place to get lost, which I don’t mind at all!

What is it about walking that you love so much?

CAY: There’s an endless list!  First, I think it’s so cool to me that when I put one foot in front of the other and go, I can get across an entire country on my own steam!  I love how walking somehow delivers just the right amount of stimulation to my brain.  It really enhances my creativity.  Often, I’ll get out the door and then not five minutes later a flood of ideas will come.  So I’ve had to master the art of walking and writing, and I keep a teeny notepad and pen in my pocket at all times.  The pace of walking is just perfect, and it’s a way to get intimate with my environment.  I get to notice details in my surroundings that I don’t glimpse when driving.

Now for some introspection. How would you say walking has impacted your life?

CAY: For me, walking is a great way of keeping in shape.  Recently I was in a singing workshop, and one of the exercises for the students was to take a deep breath, and sing a note for as long as we could.  As it turned out, I could hold a note longer than anyone else, including the teacher.  I ascribe this increased lung capacity to hill-walking, which is a great cardio workout.  That’s the body.  As far as the mind goes, as I said, walking has been good for my creativity, as a writer, photographer, and musician.  Somehow, the physical act of walking sparks new connections in all these realms.  It’s exciting!  And then there’s the heart.  If I am feeling hurt or angry or sad about something, walking will always soothe me.  I can go from muddled to calm to happy, all in one walk.  And in terms of my working life, walking created opportunities I’d never imagined – leading pilgrimages with my husband, creating a fundraising calendar for many years, giving seminars on the Camino, and now writing a book.

Camino pilgrimage trail in northern Spain (Photo by Carolyn Affleck Youngs)
Camino pilgrimage trail in northern Spain (Photo by Carolyn Affleck Youngs)

 

Personally, I find it inspiring how you’ve been able to draw on your passion for walking to make a positive change in the world. Can you tell us more about this aspect?

CAY: I think we’re so surrounded by and saturated with technology in our society.  Walking is my antidote to all that.  For me, moving through the world in this very basic human way keeps me connected to what’s important – nature and people.  I spent six months in London, England last year.  I learned so much history on my walks, I soaked up some beautiful architecture, and I even found pockets of real wildlife right in the city.  My walks were so fun and so enriching!  But, one thing there struck me as very sad.  People in the streets, generally, did not make eye contact let alone smile at each other.  Many folks, especially the younger generation, walked with eyes cast downward, glued to mobile phones.  What happened to those old “tip your hat” days?   I understand there are reasons for avoiding eye contact; cities are very dense and busy places, and London has a history of terrorism and gang violence in some  areas.  We create a sense of safety and privacy even in the midst of chaos.  But the more we stay in our little bubbles and avoid real contact, the more we fear each other, and the more impoverished our lives become.  Humans are social animals, and we need to learn how to get along.  So I made it my mission to keep acknowledging people on the street, and keep smiling, despite the indifference or outright negative reactions I got.  And every so often, someone would smile back.  It was as if this stranger and I had just shared a secret, in the briefest moment in time.  And perhaps that stranger would go on and smile at someone else. It’s that simple.  We remind ourselves and each other of our humanity, which is a step towards peace on this planet.

Can you tell us about the Peace Walker Society?

CAY: The Peace Walker Society was a non-profit organization that my late husband, Derek Walker Youngs, started years ago.  He had set out very naively in 1986 to walk across the USA with a large group of peace activists on the Great Peace March.  It was hugely transformational for him.  And, when it was over, when they’d walked from Los Angeles to Washington, DC, he couldn’t stop walking.  He knew he had to continue. What had started as a quest for peace in the world – in a very outward, physical, political, way – became something very personal, an experience of deep inner peace.

After years of walking, Derek and his supporters set up the Peace Walker Society as a way to fund peace walks with groups in Spain, Israel, Japan, and other countries.  Though he eventually stopped doing longer walks, he did continue outreach, giving seminars, and helping other peace walkers pursue their work.  Since his sudden death however in 2011, the society has become inactive because I just didn’t have the emotional resources to keep it going.  The website is still active, though, as an online memorial to my husband, and I post a sporadic blog there too.  I try to update the information on who is walking for peace in the world at any given time, and I make myself available as a resource on the Camino.

Derek Youngs walking a labyrinth (Photo by Carolyn Affleck Youngs)
Derek Youngs walking a labyrinth (Photo by Carolyn Affleck Youngs)

 

What advice do you have for someone who wants to leverage their own passion to make a positive contribution in their community?

CAY: Who knows how we all came to be here, and why we’re here on this planet?  The fact is, though, we’re in this together.  I really believe that we all have gifts, even if they seem really small, and if you cultivate your gift, and “follow your bliss”, as Joseph Campbell famously said, no matter how goofy it might seem, you will not only make yourself happy, but others as well.  Maybe not everyone will be as passionate about say, carving walnuts, but your enthusiasm itself will be infectious.  And that is a great place to start, in caring for ourselves, each other, and the planet.

Your new book, Walking to Japan, will be coming out soon. Can you tell us a little about it?

CAY: My husband began this memoir decades ago, before we met, and then after we got together it turned into a co-creation.  It was unfinished at the time of his death, so I spent a lot of time researching and adding stuff, weaving old and new bits of text together.  The first complete draft was the product of a lot of compiling, and the second was all about sifting and weeding.  Now it’s nearing completion, and I’m very excited that in the next year or so I’ll have a printed copy in my hands! My husband’s dream come true.

How does your love of walking weave into the story?

CAY: The book is more about my husband’s love of walking than my own, although much of the time I can relate to the feelings that he wanted to share through his writing.  It’s not a travelogue; it’s more about the spiritual lessons he learned along the way. The more he walked, in different corners of the world, the more he fell in love with life and the human experience.  And he became something of a guru, although he never wanted that for himself.  But people recognized a wisdom in him that they sought out.

I can see that this project has itself been like a long walk.  I started off with no clue how to write a book, but I opened the door and stepped into the unknown, knowing that I will indeed arrive somewhere if I just trust the journey.  And lo and behold, one step at a time, I have been creating a book!