Changing lives, step by step
I am now entering the final month of my 61/2-month long Walking Home From Mongolia expedition. Along the way, my cameraman Leon McCarron and I have crossed the Gobi Desert and northern China in winter, and progressed into the beautiful springtime of the central and southern Chinese mountains. We have taken a dip in the Yellow River and the Yangtze. The Pearl awaits us this week.
There have been many magical moments on the trip so far - sunrise in the frozen Gobi, being invited into a Chinese family's home for Lunar New Year's Eve, walking along the Great Wall and through unending mountains of terraced paddy fields.
There have been dark times. Walking into the freezing night on dangerous, coal-truck filled roads; getting a painful foot injury that led to limping for weeks and thoughts of giving up; getting worn down by so many days and nights of not knowing where I would sleep or eat; and just missing my home and my wife.
Sometimes, I wonder why I am doing it all. I suppose the adventure is a big part, and I like doing things that test me to my limits. And I'm enjoying getting to know China better.
But one of the other big motivations behind the expedition is to raise money for the children's charity Viva. I think it's a really good idea to help charities through doing sponsored events - whether it be running a marathon, going on a bicycle journey, or growing a moustache (Movember). You don't have to do something big like walking the length of China, but you should choose a challenge that pushes you outside your comfort zone. Helping a charity in this way has several major benefits.
Firstly, it gives you extra motivation not to give up, even when the going gets tough. When you are 'hitting the wall' on your marathon and blisters are eating up your feet, knowing that you are raising money for a cause you believe in (perhaps to help people who are suffering far more than you are now) will help you keep going.
Secondly, it encourages your friends to give more money to charity. Giving actually benefits both you and the recipient - studies from top psychologists at leading universities have shown that giving to others and being generous (whether it be with your time or your wallet) has definite benefits for your mental and physical health, increasing your life expectancy.
Finally, of course, it also helps the charity itself, which will be benefiting those in a desperately needy situation.
People can easily become cynical about giving to charities when they hear of cases that go wrong. But there are many wonderful charities around and standards of good practice are improving. When we support a charity, we need to be confident that it is transparent, accountable and effective in the work it claims to do.
I support Viva because I believe in it and have seen first-hand the work it does with children at risk. If you spend a few days talking to people who work locally to help orphans, street children and children who have been abused, trafficked or exploited in other ways, it quickly becomes apparent that there are many projects that operate independently from one another. Because their efforts are not co-ordinated, they struggle to bring about lasting change. Also, sadly, many well-intentioned local projects are battling to survive, and collapse within a few years of starting, owing to a lack of training, sustainable planning and funding.
Viva equips and connects local charities, joining people up in city-wide networks, so that workers can come together to brainstorm, share knowledge skills, receive training and find concrete ways to work together. This leverages the charities' potential, and helps bring about long-term, sustainable transformation.
Viva is 16 years old, and is changing the lives of more than 104,000 children through 22 city-wide networks. In Asia, Viva works in Cambodia, Nepal, India and the Philippines. Find out more at www.viva.org.
In three weeks' time, a few days after Leon and I have finally walked 5,000 kilometres, we are going to celebrate our return at our Welcome Home Party for Viva on Wednesday, May 30. We'll also give a short talk about the journey. Entry is free. Check our website for details.
Rob Lilwall's previous expedition, Cycling Home From Siberia, became the subject of an acclaimed motivational talk, a book, and a National Geographic TV series. Each week in Health Post, he will write about his new expedition, Walking Home From Mongolia. www.walkinghomefrommongolia.com