March 25, 2023

When business at Livescape, a Waterloo company specializing in living walls and green roofs, went into its 2017-2018 winter dormancy period, the idea of a Waterloo Region Crossing began to bloom.

The spontaneous idea of a few Waterloo co-workers to raise money for The Working Centre has grown and, on Saturday, Feb. 9, there will be 88 trekkers setting out at the Walter Bean trailhead, north of Galt, on a 65-kilometre hike across Waterloo Region.

“January to April is slower for us,” said Waterloo Region Crossing co-founder Ashley DeMarte. “We met with one of our clients and we were talking about how the homeless community were having a harder time finding a place to stay because churches were no longer taking them in.”

DeMarte said they decided to do a fundraiser to help support The Working Centre and its goal to combat poverty in our community. Tessa Jennison, who is now the Waterloo Region Crossing trek director, suggested a non-stop walk across Waterloo Region. They had no idea what that would look like, but it ended up being 65 kilometres, non-stop, for 20 hours.

“Last year there were three of us that did the entire trek,” Jennison said. “We hiked from just north of Galt at the head of the Walter Bean trail, following the trail along the Grand River all the way to the West Montrose Kissing Bridge.”

It was a spontaneous fundraising adventure to address a community need that was pressing in the winter and it raised just over $5,000.

“It was enough to feed St. John’s Kitchen for a week,” DeMarte said.

St. John’s Kitchen is run by The Working Centre. It feeds anywhere between 250 and 400 people a day and is open six days a week.

“This year the trek is a little bit different,” Jennison said. “I’ve branched off from Livescape a little bit, although we’re still very connected at the hip. I registered Waterloo Region Crossing as a non-profit organization.”

This has allowed them to orchestrate the trek as a registered official event with insurance and permits and everything else that goes along with a large-scale expedition type of adventure.

Eighty-eight people registered to participate this year with registration closing a midnight on Wednesday Jan. 16. There are more ways to get involve in the Waterloo Region Crossing. Donations can be made on their GoFundMe page and people will be able to follow the trekkers online or cheer them on along the route at eight different check points.

“The group will be equipped with a spot tracking device,” Jennison said. “It’s a GPS tracker that updates our location every 10 minutes so there will be a link to that right on the homepage of the website. People can literally watch us make the journey online and, if they so choose, they can visit us on the trek.”

Last year they had friends popping in to visit along their trek and it helped keep their spirits up.

“When you are walking for 20 hours you can only have so many conversations with the people you are walking with,” DeMarte said with a laugh.

Ashley Demarte and Tessa Jennison will be hiking across Waterloo Region on Saturday, Feb. 9, raising money for The Working Centre. Photo by Colin Burrowes, Spoke News

“It’s a real morale boost having friends and family show up and give you a hug and a hot chocolate and send you on the next leg of your journey.” Jennison agreed.

When registering for trekking, participants had a choice from among three different distances: eight kilometres, 24 kilometres or the full trek of 65 kilometres.

When Jennison decided to make it public, she thought a few of her friends who felt guilty would register, but most who did so are people she has never met before.

“Most of the people who have signed up committed to the 65-kilometre distance,” she said. “That was another surprise. I thought we’d have a big group doing eight kilometres and then saying, ‘See ya, crazies, off you go!’ But most of them are in for the long haul, which is really moving for me.”

The registration platform is hosted by Raceroster. They have a fundraising platform integrated into their registration program, so as each participant signed up they got their own personal fundraising link to send to their friends and family. Trekkers were asked to fundraise a minimum of $100, but some have gone far above and beyond.

“One woman is past the $1,300 mark and has a personal goal to raise $2,500, so we have some very enthusiastic trekkers,” Jennison said.

Waterloo Region Crossing is being insured by the Canadian Adventure Racing Association. For any of its sanctioned events the expectation is all participants must be well equipped and well prepared for safety purposes, so trekkers have an extensive mandatory gear list for the crossing.

“Kitchener and Waterloo are known for being transient with the tech industry and universities – people coming and going,” DeMarte said. “Kind of a beautiful thing that came out of this is it’s also creating a sense of belonging for members of our community who might not have that. So not only are we helping to support the homeless community … we’re also helping create a sense of belonging.”

“At its core, the Waterloo Region Crossing is a community project,” Jennison said. “It’s to help people better understand the needs of our community and show people the different ways they can get engaged and help if they want to help, lift each other up, challenge each other … as an investment in the community.”

Alicja Hunter, professor of communications at Conestoga College, has registered to participate in the trek.

“I’m a mother of two young boys,” Hunter said. “I think it’s important for them to have someone in me who is part of the community – lead by example … by being engaged in the community and help when I can … I like that it’s a grassroots endeavour.”

Hunter says she loves the outdoors but would prefer any other season over winter to do the trek.

“I’m excited to explore the region in a way I never have before,” she said. “We’ll see if I’m fit enough to do it. I’ll probably be sore by the end of it, but it’s a personal challenge … I’ve been kind of limited in how much practice I can do in terms of endurance, because I have an 11-month-old baby at home.”

Hunter was really hooked in when Jennison explained their original idea for starting the Waterloo Region Crossing.

“Tessa said, ‘It’s crazy to think when I’m feeling frigid or cold I can return home at any time, but there are so many people in the community who just don’t have that option. They are outdoors 24/7,’ ” Hunter said. “That really struck a chord with me.”

So far more that $14,000 has been raised in donations, with much more expected by the time the trekkers reach their destination at the West Montrose Kissing Bridge on Sunday, Feb. 10.

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