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Behind the Headlines: Are Walkathons Worth it?

05/31/2013 08:01 EDT | Updated 07/31/2013 05:12 EDT
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NEW DELHI, INDIA - JULY 11: School children participate in a walkathon held to mark ''World Population Day'' at India Gate on July 11, 2012 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Arvind Yadav/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Behind the Headlines: The social causes in current events.

In a unique take on daily news hits, Free The Children founders Craig and Marc Kielburger go behind the headlines to explore how the stories you read are connected to the causes you care about.

Walking season is upon us, turning fundraising into a low-impact sport. You can walk to support Cystic Fibrosis, cancer, Lupus, Alzheimer's research or to fund the training of guide dogs; you can even Walk so Kids Can Talk. Lately, it seems walking great distances is trending. Terry Fox would be proud.

Theo Fleury just completed a 10-day trek from Toronto to Ottawa. The former NHLer crossed the finish line of his "Victor Walk" on the steps of Parliament Hill to support victims of childhood sexual abuse. Fleury, a survivor of abuse, sparked at least 16 other Victor Walk spin-offs across the country. And, while walking with a core team of seven, countless others joined Fleury for shorter durations. It became something known as theVictor Movement.

Our good friend Spencer West walked from Edmonton to Calgary (about 300 kilometres), much of it on his hands. West walked in solidarity with women and girls around the world who trek long distances to collect clean water. Many here in Canada walked in solidarity with West, joining him en route.

And these were in May, when the weather wasn't so bad.

In mid-January, a group of Cree youth known as the Nishiyuu Walkers embarked from the mouth of the Great Whale River, on the border of Cree and Inuit lands in Quebec's James Bay Treaty area. They headed for Ottawa, and braved 1,600 kilometres of wilderness and frigid cold to support the Idle No More movement. They started with seven, but attracted thousands. They arrived on Parliament Hill in March.

In each of the above cases, people joined the solitary walkers to form a herd on a mission.

But others walk shorter distances for equally important causes. The annual TELUS Walk to Cure Diabetes attracts 45,000 participants at various sites across Canada and in five other countries. Last year, 170,000 participants took part in CIBC's Run for the Cure, and raised more than $30 million for breast cancer research. And new walks are launching all the time: RBC's inaugural Run for the Kids event will be held in Toronto this September to support Sunnybrook's Youth Psychiatry Program.

What is it about walking? What is it about assembling en masse in giveaway T-shirts to shuffle down blockaded streets for free chocolate milk and a participant medal? It seems to bring out the good in everyone with the promise of exercise and altruism in five-kilometre increments.

Crowds take to the streets for a grand public gesture of support that can't be ignored. Even if it's only through diverted traffic, in that moment, the city is united for the same cause. But like anything that gains widespread publicity, charity-"athons" have garnered skepticism. The issue of walking or running for a cause has become somewhat divisive.

Motorists in snarling traffic don't take comfort in the smell of sunscreen as they brake for neon shorts. Some have criticized the associated costs: closing arterial roads, hiring a police presence and medical staff to protect pedestrians who, some feel, could be volunteering instead of pounding the pavement for pledges. And it's a valid concern that the financial costs absorbed by charities for these events can be high. But is it really better to pay less in overhead, scale down your event and raise fewer dollars for the cause?

Besides, it's not just about the money.

Walkathons can be a gateway fundraiser for young people. Kids lack income but have access to doting grandparents and proud aunts who can pledge support for the child's volunteer efforts and charitable cause. Co-workers might harass each other to forfeit coffee money in favour of sponsoring a trek. Or office-wide walking can be an offsite team-building opportunity and an exercise in corporate social responsibility.

Walking in itself is volunteering time. It's an ideal activity for seniors seeking low-impact physical activity and a social jaunt, for new parents toting strollers, or for those living on a modest budget who can't afford to cut a cheque. It's easy to donate in small increments by pledging per kilometre, which makes it a testament to the notion that every step, and every dollar, counts.

Despite critics, people gravitate toward the social activity, the novelty of walking down an otherwise congested road in a renewed public space, and the communal effort that proves everyone has a place in the wider movement.

And maybe it's not just the money raised, but also the endorphins generated from the effort.

Spencer West's Trek From Edmonton To Calgary

Craig and Marc Kielburger founded the international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.