Non-Profit Nets $100K at Montecito Benefit

It sounds like a crazy idea, but Mike Walker is on a mission. This June, he will compete in a seven-day, 150-mile race across China’s Gobi Desert, one of the planet’s harshest landscapes, carrying all his own food and equipment on his back.

His reason for the quest across the desert: To raise money for a non-profit organization called Room to Read, which builds and supports schools in the developing world. At a fundraiser for 125 people on Friday night, Walker was hoping his story of impending hardship and sacrifice in the desert would motivate others to donate money. Turns out he was right.

The fundraiser, held at Nancy and Kevin O’Connor’s Montecito home, raised more than $100,000 and surpassed Walker’s goal by $30,000. “I’m so encouraged by the response. It’s so heartwarming to see this community step up and support a global cause,” Walker said. “It’s phenomenal. I couldn’t be more excited.”

“What I really admire is the guts it takes to say I want to make a difference,” said Nancy O’Connor about Walker. The O’Connors and Walkers met when their daughters started kindergarten at Crane Country Day School last fall, and soon realized that both families had traveled extensively throughout Asia and seen the poverty, pollution and disease affecting everyday life there.

Back in 1998, Walker and his wife, Kelly, had just gotten back from a trip to Southeast Asia when they overheard two people having a conversation at a coffee shop in San Francisco about Nepal. They leaned over and introduced themselves to John Wood, who had left his job as a senior level executive at Microsoft to start his non-profit.

“We were immediately caught up with John’s passion,” Walker said. “Having just been in Tibet and Nepal, we were very aware of the need.” The Walkers made financial commitments to the organization from the beginning, and last year, they donated funds to build a school in Laos.

At Friday night’s fundraiser, Wood gave a talk and slide show presentation about his organization, explaining how his non-profit organization follows strict business principles to help it succeed. In some of Asia’s poorest countries, Room to Read has opened 287 schools, established 3,600 libraries, published 147 new local language books and funded 2,336 girls’ scholarships.

“I’m an entrepreneur, so I’ve always thought non-profits should be run like a business,” said Kevin O’Connor, the founder of the online advertising giant, Doubleclick, who said that he and his wife are donating money to build a school in Nepal. “He’s the first guy I’ve seen apply business principles so well to a charitable cause,” he added.

Walker, the father of three young children, decided to compete in the Gobi Desert race after hearing about a fraternity brother from college who had run a similar race through the Sahara Desert in Egypt. To prepare for the race, he takes a 20-mile run through the foothills and an 18-mile run the next day, with a heavy pack on his back.

“All the support this community has given me absolutely motivates me,” Walker said. “It will definitely carry me through some tough times in the desert this summer.” Walker will chronicle his experiences during the race at runningthegobi.blogspot.com.

If you are interested in supporting Walker and Room to Read, you can send checks made out to Room to Read to: Mike Walker – Race For the Planet Fundraiser, 26 West Mission #9, Santa Barbara, CA, 93101. Mike can be reached at (805) 708-2275 or by e-mail at racefortheplanetmike@yahoo.com.