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By karen Newell Young
Rotary president does the walk
Cathy Wilcox-Barnes hikes 450 miles in effort to stop polio
Loaded down by 25 pounds of gear and a bevy of “End Polio Now” buttons, Cathy Wilcox-Barnes began hiking the Camino del Norte in Northern Spain on July 22. She returned Sept. 7, logging 450 miles and raising more than $2,000 to help eradicate polio—an effort that was matched two to one by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, increasing the amount to $6,000.

The Camino del Norte is part of the Camino de Santiago, known in English as The Way of Saint James. It is a network of pilgrims’ paths now serving a number of causes, although originally honoring the shrine of Saint James the Great.

Wilcox-Barnes trekked from Irun, Spain, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where Saint James the Great is believed to be buried.

She returned to Nevada City with memories of “trail angels” who helped guide each other and, in the words of Van Morrison, “spirits all along the way, who will befriend us.”

Fellow hikers are called pilgrims and the camaraderie spread up and down the trail. She met an elderly woman who was not hiking but pointed the trekkers in the right director when the path was unclear and one man went out of his way, literally way out of his way, to lead them when they were lost.

“I met people I’ll be friends with my whole life, people from all over the world,” she said. “I thought, how can I take that feeling home and use it to make a difference?”

Wilcox-Barnes, president of the Nevada City Rotary Club, prepared for the trek for more than a year. She is dedicated to Rotary International’s End Polio Now effort and emphasized the organization’s progress since
it targeted the disease in the 1980s.

“There are four countries where polio is still a problem,” she said. “Only eight cases were reported since July. We’re this close.”

She handed out Rotary’s End Polio Now buttons throughout her trip. Strangers asked her not only what Rotary was but about the latest information on polio, which most folks thought was eradicated.

An experienced hiker, she and her sister, Helen Coleman, felt safe on the Camino and they said their biggest challenge was sometimes finding shelter at night. The albergues,” or dormitories for Camino hikers, are first come, first serve—if they encountered delays by getting lost or, in many cases, getting drenched, they might lose their lodging for the night.

“One time it had been raining all day,” she said. “We couldn’t find a room until 10 at night. That was the most stressful experience.”

 She advises potential Camino hikers to bring sleep masks and earplugs. “There could be 6 or 40 people sleeping in the same room. I’m not used to being in a room with that many people at night,” she added.

Wilcox-Barnes dedicated her walk to Sam Dardick, a polio victim who died in 2011. He was the founder of FREED, the first independent living center in Northern California, a county supervisor and father of Caleb Dardick, the former executive director of SYRCL.

“Seeing what he could accomplish in a wheelchair was inspiring,” Wilcox-Barnes said.

Polio was prevalent in the early 20th century, but advances with the Salk vaccine made the disease avoidable. Rotary International, which has made the elimination of polio a priority, has united with the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the Gates Foundation to help reduce polio cases by 99.9 percent worldwide since its first project to vaccinate children in the Philippines in 1979.

The global service organization has helped immunize more than 2.5 billion children. Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are still at risk for polio. Recently, Syria has seen a re-emergence. There were 37 confirmed cases in 2016.

With the Gates Foundation match to Wilcox-Barnes’ fundraising, every dollar donated will inoculate five children.

The campaign is not over: Oct. 24 is World Polio Day and there is still time to give.

For more information, visit givingtrail.org and browse the campaigns for end polio once and for all. For an interview by Robin Milam with Caleb Dardick on his life with his father, visit youtube.com and search for Caleb Dardick.
Wilcox-Barnes at a milestone along the way.