Former policeman walks 15,000km to raise money for poor children

March 30, 2023 - 06:39
Having quit his job in 2007, Kellenberger founded Island Kids Philippines (IKP), an organisation aimed at supporting underprivileged children in Cagayan de Oro, Philippines.


Thomas Kellenberger walks with children near the Ganges River in India. — Photos courtesy of Thomas Kellenberger

Anh Đức

HÀ NỘI — To raise awareness of child abuse and homelessness in the Philippines, Thomas Kellenberger, a former Swiss policeman, embarked on a journey spanning over 15,000 kilometres from Switzerland to the Philippines – on foot.

Having quit his job in 2007, Kellenberger founded Island Kids Philippines (IKP), an organisation aimed at supporting underprivileged children in Cagayan de Oro, Philippines.

The 41-year-old reached Hà Nội on March 24 as a guest of Thomas Gass, the Swiss Ambassador to Việt Nam, who held a press meeting with Kellenberger in his home.

Kellenberger arrived barefooted, wearing a T-shirt with the words "Kuya Thom goes home. Walking 15,000 km to give children a home".

"The children at IKP called me 'Kuya Thom', which means 'Brother Thom'," said Kellenberger.

Records? No. Raising awareness? Yes.

According to Kellenberger, during his first time in the Philippines, he and his mother were just normal tourists eager to explore the islands.

"However, during our time there, we witnessed kids living on the streets, collecting garbage, and I was even more appalled when a local invited me to invited me to take part in child prostitution," recalled Kellenberger.

During that time, Kellenberger supported four young girls but soon realised that more help was needed to counter the enormous issues Filipino children face. When he returned to Switzerland, he decided to quit his job and return to the Philippines to establish IKP.

"People called me crazy for giving up my career so early," said Kellenberger. "But my mother always supported me, and even before she passed away, she helped me raise funding from businesses and organisations in Switzerland. When she died in 2021 from cancer, I decided to begin this journey. She was my inspiration."

Kellenberger said that his long, arduous journey was not for recognition nor breaking records but rather to raise awareness of child trafficking and prostitution.

The problem of child abuse in the Philippines is not new. In 1986 a case shocked the islands, not only because of its atrocity but also because of the authorities' incompetence.

Heinrich Ritter, an Austrian man, was suspected of raping two homeless kids, a boy and a girl, in a hotel in Olongapo, Philippines. Ritter then paid the kids a few dollars.

Seven months later, the girl died of infection.

According to her relatives, the girl was under the age of consent, but prosecutors could not prove this due to a lack of documents. Meanwhile, Ritter's lawyer argued that the girl voluntarily consented due to the money.

Eventually, due to a lack of proof regarding the use of force on the girl, the Supreme Court of The Philippines did not convict Ritter; instead, expelling him and asked for indemnification of a mere US$1,000.

Nowadays, the Philippines Council for the Welfare of Children recorded 8,948 cases of child abuse in 2022.

Not about the money

Kellenberger near West Bengal. 

Out of all the routes that Kellenberger picked, the Swiss chose one of the most challenging, crossing mountains in Eastern Europe, the Himalayas in India and the deserts of the Middle East.

He then walked from Điện Biên Phủ to Hà Nội, a whopping 420km, before continuing his last 173km walk in Việt Nam to Hạ Long Bay.

"Whenever we mention charity and child support, we usually think of providing food and home, however, it's not always about the materialistic support," said Kellenberger.

"We once rescued a 10-year-old girl who was sold to a brothel," recalled Kellenberger. "The girl was abused many times. (For these children), we must be the ones to open our hearts and build our trusts."

The city of Cagayan de Oro, where IKP operates, only has a small hospital. Good doctors here look for opportunities abroad, leading to a shortage of doctors locally.

According to their website, IKP provides abused and abandoned children accommodation, protection, psychological, legal help and education opportunities.

However, Kellenberger said sometimes conflicts arise between the family and social workers in tackling child abuse.

"Children sometimes suffer abuse in their safest zone - their own home," said Kellenberger. For instance, young girls are prone to be abused by men in the family."

"However, the mothers, despite knowing the abuse, deny it out of shame or because they don't want to trouble the breadwinners in the family. This is a huge challenge for social workers." 

But the Filipino government is stepping up, according to the Swiss walker.

"Normally, NGOs used to work separately, but we have since collaborated," said Kellenberger, "The government is also actively working. We did not have a social worker in Cagayan de Oro, but we helped train new social workers who now worked for the city."

Since 2007, IKP has helped 1,500 children and built a Children's Village and two schools in Cagayan de Oro.

According to Kellenberger, the Philippines has also closed open garbage sites and banned children from working in the industry.

"However, there are still lots to do," said Kellenberger.

Journey to the East

Thomas Kellenberger (right) with a map of his journey. 

Since August 25, 2021, from his home in Interlaken, Switzerland, Thomas Kellenberger has crossed 22 countries on foot, with Hạ Long Bay in Việt Nam being his last destination before boarding a plane to the Philippines to finish the journey in May 2023.

According to Kellenberger, he had to skip some countries due to being separated by sea or military conflicts, but mostly he walked on his journey.

The journey is not always without danger; he was stung by a giant hornet bee while crossing the Great Himalayan National Park.

"I survived that but almost died because of a rock falling from above while walking on a normal road," said Kellenberger. "I also faced loneliness, one of human's greatest challenges. Sometimes I had ten days straight without meeting anyone, and the only foreigners I met in my journey to Hà Nội were a German couple."

"However, in my journey, I was blessed to be welcomed by the local people, who gave me food and a home, and sometimes treated me as one of their own."

When he arrived in Việt Nam, Kellenberger was astounded by the friendliness of the people and the taste of Vietnamese coffee, but that was not the only thing that surprised the Swiss.

"When I arrived in Hà Nội, I went around your city and was surprised. No homeless kids are lying around in the streets like in the Philippines," said Kellenberger, "I wanted to meet with officials and organisations in Việt Nam to learn more about how you tackled these problems."

"Thomas is one of Switzerland's heroes," said Ambassador Gass in the press briefing. "Kellenberger, with only his will, completed the long journey from Europe to Asia on foot."

"Kellenberger's journey is a journey without borders," said Gass. "It shows that we can contribute to others, no matter where we come from." — VNS