When one chooses to walk 150 miles for charity, the destination might be somewhere in Western Massachusetts or Connecticut – or even far up north.
Project Place volunteer Nila Webster, who lives in Revere, completed her 150-mile walk for Project Place – a program in Boston’s South End that gives homeless and formerly incarcerated people a second chance – without ever leaving her apartment building.
Webster, who has suffered from cancer for the past 10 years, wanted to raise money for the charity during COVID-19 as Project Place had been prevented from having its annual banner fundraiser in April. However, there wasn’t a lot she could do outside – especially as someone coping with cancer and cancer treatments. She had been inspired by an elderly man in the United Kingdom, though, who was 100 years old and raised money for COVID-19 charities by walking in his garden.
Webster said she knew she could walk, and there was space in the halls of her building, so she set off for a long trip through a familiar space.
Counting her steps and areas travelled, Webster started the walk in early May, and by May 27 she had hit mile 139. It was a tight squeeze, but with her friends and neighbors cheering her on from a distance, she got to the 150-mile mark in the atrium of her building in the last week of May.
“When I read the story of Tom Moore, the 100 year old Army captain from England who walked his garden to raise money for charity, I immediately thought of Project Place,” said Webster. “During the height of Corona, I was asking myself what I could do to bring positive energy into the world, and I realized that like Captain Moore, I could walk to raise awareness for a charity I love and respect. So I pledged to walk 150 miles to raise awareness for Project Place during the month of May. Today, May 29, I completed the walk-a-thon for one, with many neighbors and friends supporting the cause.”
Katy Dirks, director of development for Project Place, said they met Webster when she was looking for charities to help – particularly those that give people a second chance. Since meeting her about a year ago, and hosting her for a talk with their clients, it has been a wonderful partnership. Webster was a regular at the Washington Street headquarters, and always wanted to do more. When COVID-19 hit, she could no longer do that, but she would not give up on the idea of helping in some way.
“Nila is just a beautiful person,” said Dirks. “She just walked around the Atrium of her building for hours and hours and hours until she had walked 150 miles. That’s amazing for someone with brain cancer and for someone in isolation because of COVID-19. It was amazing. She is just such a superstar for us. Every time we talk, she is so humble, especially at a time like this. We had to cancel our fundraiser in April, and we usually raise $1 million at that event. She wanted to help make that up.”
Webster said now is the time when people can channel their time and energy into helping others and making the world a better place.
“I was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2010 and was one day away from hospice,” she said. “These years later, I still have tumors on both lungs that can spread at any moment. But I was given a second chance, and Project Place is all about giving people second chances and new beginnings. Their work is life-changing and empowering for all of us.
“Like my cancer story, the story of Project Place is a story of hope, and turning that hope into a living reality through real-time solutions for those who truly need it,” she continued. “And if we are uncertain in this time of Covid-19, and our own jobs and lives have been put on hold and we are not sure how to help, we can choose our favorite charity and pledge to walk for them — be it five miles, 10, or maybe more. Now of all times is the time for us to pull together and channel our energy into making this whole world more beautiful.”
Dirks said times at Project Place have been very tough. More than 30 percent of the homeless population in the area has tested positive for COVID-19, and efforts to help the community have had to be re-tooled with the advent of social distancing and online learning. Losing their annual fundraiser and access to volunteers like Webster has also been a massive challenge.
Still, they have continued the work and have actually placed 11 people in jobs during the last 10 weeks of the pandemic, many of whom have gone from homelessness to being front-line workers everyone is depending on.
“It’s amazing that these clients at one time felt invisible in terms of the value they can offer others,” said Dirks. “Now it’s a total flip and they’re the ones we’re all relying on for so much.”
Dirks said they did share Webster’s story on social media, and it got an amazing response.
“She got some of the highest hits on our social media channels that we’ve ever had,” said Dirks. “It was so inspiring to so many. That’s an exciting thing.”