Amy Russell

One Step at a Time

Amy Russell and Walking4Water

By John Brooks
Director of Media Relations and News

Carlos Litulo has witnessed many people trying to make it across parts of the African continent by means such as rowing canoes, pedaling bicycles, and riding motorbikes. But until last summer, the young photographer from Maputo, Mozambique, had never met anyone like Amy Russell. Russell, a 2010 University graduate, is attempting to walk the entire length of the African continent, south to north, by early 2014. Her purpose: to call attention to the need for clean water and raise funds to help build water wells.

Aaron Tharp
Aaron Tharp, Chicago, filters water. He is walking with Russell.

Litulo met Russell, 24, in June 2012 to photograph her journey for National Geographic Traveler’s “2012 Traveler of the Year” feature, which included her. What he noticed in the few short days he was with her is that Russell respected the locals, wanted to know about their lives, and preferred to live as they do as she walks among them. For example, Litulo recalled seeing Russell meet a group of hungry children and sharing her food with them.

Litulo knows all too well about the importance of clean water, and how precious little there is in some places in Africa. That’s why he’s followed Russell’s journey since meeting her last year. “I couldn’t imagine myself meeting someone who left everything at home, and came from far away just to walk and campaign for water. It was quite unexpected.” Litulo’s response is similar to those expressed by many Africans who meet Russell and Aaron Tharp, Chicago, who is accompanying her on this improbable journey.

“The need for clean water is something we encounter on a daily basis,” said Russell, speaking by mobile phone as the duo walked at dusk on a rural, paved road surrounded by cassava, corn, and rice farms near Karonga, Malawi. Russell, who earned a bachelor’s degree in business and economics with a concentration in nonprofit management, said the Africa walk was inspired by God and the things she learned about poverty while a North Park student. Human trafficking and human suffering result from extreme poverty, and access to clean water is an important factor in ending poverty, she said. Russell founded the organization Walking4Water while she was a University student, calling attention to and raising funds for clean water projects. Walking4Water provides funds to charity: water, New York, which sends 100 percent of its funds to water projects in developing nations.

Thus far, dollars raised by Walking4Water totaled $8,000 in 2012, and the team hopes to double that total this year. Walking4Water’s funds have helped make possible water projects in Uganda, Ethiopia, and Nepal, bringing water to about 500 people, with more projects expected in the coming months, charity: water reports. Jesse Bauer, Walking4Water’s fundraising campaign manager, said the team welcomes small gifts. “A small amount of money can change someone’s life. Just $20. Every dollar, every cent, goes out in the field, and changes lives,” he said.

Creatively seeking change

Russell started her walk in January 2012, and will walk about 20 miles per day for at least two years before concluding the 7,000-mile journey in Egypt. Along the way, she and Tharp have been talking with locals about their challenges in getting clean water, and they see for themselves what the local water situation is like. Most are aware that they need to drink clean water, but some don’t have access to clean water sources, Russell said. Like many Africans, she and Tharp have experienced challenges in locating usable water sources.

Amy Russell with locals
Russell has done more than just walk — she takes time to meet and talk with local people on her journey.

Her family and friends say it’s just like Amy to creatively seek change by walking across Africa. “She was always interested in social justice issues, and that intensified when she got to North Park,” said her father, Charles, Manchester, Conn. “It made sense that clean water was one of the first hurdles for people to make their lives better.” Amy possesses the administrative capabilities of her mother Joanne, and the spirit of her grandfather, Donald Hundt, Charles Russell said. The family hears from Amy regularly via text messages and phone calls.

Friends are amazed when the Russells tell them about their daughter’s African journey. Surprising to many, yes, but to the Russell family, this is the Amy they’ve known for a long time. They witnessed her deep interest in social justice issues as far back as middle school when she would go on mission trips or spend time in places where help was needed. “She’s capable and she’s got a great God. When she was born, I dedicated her to the Lord for whatever his work would be,” Charles Russell said.

Amy Russell credits her family, friends—including many North Parkers—a support team in Chicago, and her home congregation, Trinity Covenant Church, Manchester, Conn., for their encouragement and prayer. She has maintained fairly good health in the first year of her journey, though Russell contracted malaria last fall in Mozambique and had to stop for a week to recover. Whenever possible, she and Tharp stay on paved roads where they can get to transportation if necessary. Motorbikes, buses, and trucks can be heard passing by while she speaks.

Determination and passion

The Africa journey has resulted in much “personal growth and transformation,” Russell said.

“Sometimes, you get to the point when you feel you’re on the brink of being done. We’ve gotten to that point so many times that we just get over it and keep going,” she said. “I don’t have too many doubts about finishing, unless something totally catastrophic happens.”

One of Russell’s best friends, Sarah Van Putten, Omaha, Neb., who attended North Park from 2007 to 2010, quit her job in 2012, and for a month joined the Africa walk with Russell, Tharp, and Marty Yoder, who was with the team in its early months. Yoder drove a support vehicle, but because it kept breaking down, the vehicle was sold. Yoder eventually returned to the United States. “I believe in what Amy is doing, and I wanted to encourage her in what she was doing,” said Van Putten, who has known Russell since their freshman year in 2007, when they both lived on the same floor in Anderson Hall. “She is one of the most determined and passionate people I’ve ever met,” she said.

The Africa walk team has experienced its own struggles to find sources of clean water, Van Putten said. They had to do creative things to keep adequate water supplies with them, the kinds of things many Africans have to do regularly. They would get water from rainwater holding tanks at gas stations, or wait until they reached cities to refresh water supplies, Van Putten said. Families they stayed with would often boil water for themselves and the walkers. “We had to carry as much water as we could. The water from streams is so dirty. It’s not anything you want to be drinking,” she said.

Van Putten is part of Russell’s Walking4Water team, working with Evangelical Covenant Church congregations to spread the word about Russell’s quest. For example, at her own congregation, First Covenant Church, Omaha, members arranged a 5K run for Walking4Water, and the topic has been discussed in Vacation Bible School.

Van Putten said she is confident that the Africa walk will be a success. “God will provide what Amy needs to do this. She is a strong believer. She calls on God enough that I’m not too worried about her,” she said.

Amy Russell filtering water
Finding sources of water has been a constant challenge for Russell and her team.

Still, there are some tricky places Russell and Tharp are planning to walk through in the coming months. Parts of Kenya and Ethiopia may not be friendly places for visitors, Russell said. Bauer is watching the map, too. Getting visas for Sudan is difficult because of the country’s recent division into north and south regions. Ethiopia requires tourists to enter the country through specific international entry points. The team is working to resolve visa issues like these before Russell and Tharp arrive in these countries, Bauer said.

Proving impossible things possible

The Walking4Water team has raised funds through sponsors to cover budgeted costs for the two-year journey, set at a modest $39,000, Bauer said. Another $4,000, set aside for possible emergency needs, will be donated to water projects if not used. The Africa team uses ATMs to get money, and they use debit cards to finance purchases, he said.

Bauer’s wife, Emily, is a 2011 North Park graduate in nursing, and has known Russell since 2007. She is confident Russell will push on to the journey’s conclusion. Emily Bauer’s work as a nurse and her longtime friendship with Russell are what motivate her to help with the Africa walk. “I knew if I couldn’t talk Amy out of it, I might as well help her as much as I can,” she said. “Plus, health is a really important issue for me, and so is clean water. We have the technology and infrastructure to bring clean water to people. Amy is a person who can really make a difference.” Emily Bauer is Walking4Water’s support team director.

The Bauers keep in regular contact with Russell and Tharp, via text message, marking their progress on Walking4Water’s website and Facebook page. When he first met Russell, Jesse Bauer said he became a believer in the project, and he’s been inspired by North Park community support for Russell and Walking4Water.

After she finishes the Africa journey, and walking nearly every day for at least two years, Russell said she is looking forward to coming home and working, and possibly attending graduate school. She maintains a blog, keeps a journal, and may write a book. Plus, she is planning a speaking tour in the United Kingdom and United States. Given the same conditions, Russell said she would make the decision again to walk across Africa for clean water and is grateful for the experience. And her advice to people with big ideas about changing the world?

“There’s no time like the present to prove impossible things are possible. It takes 100 percent of everything you have if you want to do something ambitious. If you are fully committed, go for it.”

Next Steps

To learn more about Walking4Water and to read Amy's blog, please visit www.walking4water.org. You can also read about Amy Russell’s selection as a “National Geographic Traveler of the Year."

Read more from the Summer 2013 North Parker.