Once a Soldier, Now a Hiker, He Helps Korea's Cast-Off Children

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Once a Soldier, Now a Hiker, He Helps Korea's Cast-Off Children

Ron Fowler has set a challenge for himself: to trek across the mountains of Korea. He is braving the winter elements in a bid to draw media attention to the plight of Korean orphans.

"I am a 34-year-old American who loves trekking and children. I have been fortunate enough to realize that I can use one passion to bring change to and improve the lives of the other," Mr. Fowler said before starting his sixth trek in Korea.

When he left Mokpo in South Cholla province on Feb. 17, it was 8 degrees Celsius and a clear day. By the time he arrives in Seoul on March 7, he will have walked 550 kilometers through rain and cold weather carrying a 20-kilogram backpack.

"My feet hurt," he said with a laugh over his cellular phone on Monday while heading to Taejon. He has hiked through Kyongju, Suncheon and Cheongju on a schedule that allows him to take a shower and clean up his belongings in a major city after every four days of camping.

This trip is also a chance for Mr. Fowler to condition himself for an even more challenging hike, one that will take him around the world. "I'm mentally sorting the steps I need to take for the world hike," Mr. Fowler said. He plans to leave in August, and will be welcoming guest hikers. If all goes according to plan, the culmination of the world hike - also for orphans - will be to walk the 38th parallel in Korea, he said.

When he went on his first hike in 1995, he was celebrating the 10 years since he first came to Korea as a soldier in the U.S. Army. He served in Korea from 1985 to 1990, left for Illinois to continue his studies, then returned to Korea in 1993 to teach English.

In 1996 he volunteered to teach English at Kangnam Orphanage in Yangjae. As he began to draw closer to his pupils, their situation pained him. He became frustrated with a system that produces apathetic children with no apparent regard for their future. "So many children go in and come out of the system, the authorities don't know what to do. I was overwhelmed," he said.

He founded Trekkids in the spring of 1997, a hiking club that emphasizes educating orphans. "Adults have to take responsibility," he said.

With the media frenzy that resulted from his first trek in 1995 in mind, he went on a humanitarian trek in 1998. The success of the 1998 hike prompted him to hike each consequent year. During past hikes, volunteers have joined him.

Over three years he has raised more than 14 million won ($12,000). With the money, he plans to create a private educational institute for orphans or specific children. In the past, he has paid for former students' tuition at such a school.

"I don't want to be a hero, but it would be irresponsible to pull out," Mr. Fowler said.

by Joe Yong-hee

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