Chris Harshman is seen off by his father James at Toronto’s Pearson Airport as he embarks May 4 on his fundraising trek from the Vatican to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Harshman’s journey will raise money for Mary’s Meals Canada to feed undernourished kids in Malawi. Photo courtesy Harshman family)

2,700-km pilgrimage follows ancient footsteps, feeds the hungry

By 
  • May 9, 2017

The way Chris Harshman figured it, if he was going to walk 2,700 kilometres anyway, he might as well help some people along the way.

If all goes well, more than 300 children in Africa will be better off because of his efforts.

Over the next four and a half months Harshman, a 30-year-old video game developer from Oshawa, Ont., will follow an ancient pilgrimage route from Rome to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, home of the shrine for St. James the apostle. Starting at the Vatican, he will travel through northern Italy and across the France side of the Pyrenees Mountains to Lourdes before joining the well-known Spanish camino, following a similar route of many Christians in the Middle Ages.

“It is certainly going to grow and enhance my faith life for sure,” Harshman said May 3, the day before catching his flight to Rome. “But that is for me and I don’t want to do something that is just for me. (So) let’s raise money for a charity.”

Harshman, who has spent more than a year training and preparing for the pilgrimage, began approaching charities which stood out to him. To his surprise, few were interested.

“The charities didn’t quite understand why I’d want to raise money for them by doing a walk,” he said. “I won’t go too much into that. But then I ended up coming across Mary’s Meals Canada.”

Harshman discovered that for just over $16 Mary’s Meals Canada provides a schoolchild in Malawi a daily hot meal for a year.

“It is like an oatmeal gruel mix but it is very nutritious for the kids,” he said. “The most important thing is that they offer a hot meal ... to kids in Africa so that they can learn on a full stomach.”

And for many of those children it is the only meal they eat each day, said Jill Mowser, fundraising co-ordinator for Mary’s Meals Canada, which in 2016 raised about $500,000, doubling their previous year’s donations.

“These are children who are in pretty desperate circumstances,” she said from her Calgary office.

There are more than 1.2 million children being served daily by Mary’s Meals Canada and its 10 counterparts that include Mary’s Meals USA, Mary’s Meals France and the original, Mary’s Meals UK.

The daily meal program is also an incentive for others to start attending school.

“What we find is that when we start providing these meals the enrolment in the school dramatically increases and the children’s performance in school dramatically increases,” said Mowser. “It is definitely very motivating for the children to go to school and for the parents to send them, if they have parents ... (because) there are a lot of orphans and a lot of child-led households.”

Mary’s Meals Canada gladly accepted Harshman’s offer to donate the funds raised through his walk. “For someone to take so much time away from his personal life … and to do something this big, I think that people really respect that,” said Mowser.

For Harshman, the fact that the charity ultimately helps educate kids “is the most important thing.”

“It is so important to the world and I see it done poorly so much throughout the world,” he said.

Harshman decided to aim for a modest $5,000 during the trip. But as word spread of his intentions, the donations began.

“Last I checked it was 33 per cent towards the goal,” he said. “It’s not that I intended to raise all the money before going on the trip. I really wanted to raise all the money during the trip so it is really inspiring and humbling that I’ve raised 33 per cent of the goal prior to even taking a step.”

Much of the money has come from Harshmans’ local parish, St. Joseph the Worker, said his father James.

“So many people have just stepped forward and said ‘this is great Chris, we are praying for you,’ ” said the family’s patriarch. “Our church, our priest, the CWL have all donated money. It is a wonderful feeling when all these people that you know in the church step forward and say saying that I wish I could go, this is a great idea.”

That kind of faith-fuelled support from the community is comforting to the family.

“We are nervous that he is going on this huge adventure, but it is really an action of faith,” said James, a father of three.

“Faith is essentially saying that we have to trust that he is in the Lord’s hands and that Mary is guiding him. It gives you a feeling that you are doing something with a purpose even beyond the call of walking.”

To keep the donations flowing Harshman intends to use a mixture of social media and a blog, www.pilgrimformeals.com.

“The blog is going to provide people with an insight into my trip,” said Harshman. “The blog will balance both on the spiritual aspects and the physical site aspects, kind of the trials and tribulations of walking such a distance.

“My hope is that if people don’t donate right away that they’ll be able to follow through the blog and become more inclined to donate.”

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