Andrew Gardner is taking another step toward returning to his homeland on a more permanent basis.
One of the top long-distance runners in the nation for his age, the Mead senior, along with his brother and three other Mead students, will fly to south-central Ethiopia in early June for a 16-day journey they hope brings relief and hope to those struggling in the developing nation.
To that end, they’re staging a fundraising race Saturday at Mead High School. Since the students have already paid for their airfare, all proceeds from the race will go to purchasing life-sustaining vehicles for Ethiopian women.
They come in the form of donkeys.
“It costs $150 for a donkey,” said Gardner, an Ethiopian native who was adopted at age 9 by Steve and Michelle Gardner. “The donkeys allow widowed women to transport water from wells 3 to 5 miles to their homes. They also can carry wood. They sell water and wood at the markets.”
The 5-kilometer race, which is open to all ages, is titled Racing in Two Worlds and is Saturday morning at 8. The race will be held on Mead’s cross country course. The cost is $7 for preregistration and $10 the day of the race. Pregistration can be done at Runners Soul.
“We’d love to be able to buy 30 to 40 donkeys,” Gardner said. “The donkeys will be with them a long time. They also can rent them out. They’re going to be a huge tool for them.”
They’ve raised enough money so far to buy 11 donkeys, Michelle Gardner said.
The Ethiopia project started 10 months ago. Andrew saved money earned from a summer job to pay for his airfare.
The students have been collecting clothing and school supplies to give to villagers.
“Over half the children die before the age of 5 largely due to dysentery and other results of dirty water,” Michelle said. “Children also die because they are small and malnourished and can never get warm during the rainy season. We are taking lots of blankets and baby hoodies and little caps to help keep the heat in.”
Four adults, including Michelle Gardner, will accompany the students. It will be Michelle’s 18th trip to Ethiopia.
Andrew Gardner and another standout Mead runner, Daniel Schofield, also from Ethiopia, graduate June 7. They’ll board a plane the next day along with Grace Olson, also from Ethiopia, and Spokane native Colton McLendon.
They’ve jokingly dubbed their trip “Four Ethiopians and a White Guy.”
“Colton has been a close friend since last year,” Gardner said. “When we started the project I asked him if he’d like to go. The farthest trip he’s ever been on has been to Oregon. He asked his parents and they said no. Then for his birthday they surprised him with an airline ticket to Ethiopia.”
Gardner will attend the University of Washington beginning in the fall. He accepted a scholarship to run cross country and track.
He plans to major in nursing. As soon as he graduates, he plans to go back to Ethiopia.
“A lot of people have asked me why I’m not going to school to be a doctor instead of a nurse,” Gardner said. “My goal isn’t to be in college too long. I want to go back there and work with doctors. I want to do whatever I can. I’ve wanted to give back for what they did for me. I’m more fortunate now that I’ve lived here. It would have been so cool as a young boy in Ethiopia if somebody came like I want to and did something for a community.”
The students have also collected donations of soccer jerseys and balls. Soccer is popular among the youth in Ethiopia. Bloomsday organizers have also donated dozens of medals and T-shirts.
Gardner said he and the students are planning a mini-Olympics in some of the villages.
“We’re so grateful for all the donations,” Gardner said. “Our goal is if we can get their minds off their worries for a day or two and let them enjoy life that would be cool.”
Gardner, his 14-year-old adopted brother, Nathanael, Schofield and Olson hope to find relatives who are still alive.
“Nathanael is hoping to find his sister,” Michelle said. “We think she is about 21. She may not still be living, but we are going to try to find her.”
The more people who participate in the race Saturday the more donkeys the students can give to widowed women.
“A donkey can literally keep a family intact and enable a woman to send her children to school,” said Michelle, who used to have a non-profit group that among its projects gave donkeys to Ethiopian women. “When we hand a woman the rope around a donkey’s neck, it’s like handing her the keys to a car.”