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Arizona man stops in Ford City during cross-country hike to help stranger

| Wednesday, June 26, 2013, 10:46 a.m.
BRIGID BEATTY I LEADER TIMES Drew Blondeaux, is a 23-year-old veteran from Arizona who is walking across the country to raise money for an Oregon woman with medical needs. He stopped to visit relatives in Ford City this week and stands here outside Bill and Kathy Oleksak’s home on Sixth Avenue.
SUBMITTED Drew Blondeaux during his trek across Nevada.

FORD CITY — What does a 3,600-mile cross-country walk and seven worn-out pairs of shoes add up to?

For those following the journey of Drew Blondeaux, a Navy veteran from Tucson, Ariz., it is a way to measure kindness.

Blondeaux, 23, who set out from Oceanside, Calif., on March 24, has been walking across the country in an effort to raise money for Liz Estes of Oregon — a woman with advanced-stage multiple sclerosis whom he has never met.

He has walked 120 miles in one stretch and averaged between 60 and 70 miles for eight straight days.

He plans to finish his journey at the Statue of Liberty in New York City by July 20.

On Sunday, Blondeaux stopped off in Ford City for several days of rest and caught up with some of his relatives before heading out on the last leg of his journey. His late great-grandparents, Henry and Katherine Blondeaux, had been Ford City residents.

He said he first heard about Estes through his uncle, who is a pastor in Oregon where Estes lives.

Blondeaux felt compelled to do something when he learned about the struggles Estes and her family endure on a daily basis.

At 13, Estes battled leukemia, Blondeaux said. She is now 21, struggling with health issues related to MS and is pregnant with her second child. She suffers from temporary blindness and has to sit on the floor to play with her daughter, who is just under 2 years of age.

Although monetary donations for the Estes family haven't been coming in as fast and high as Blondeaux hoped, he is grateful to those who have shown support.

“Every little bit helps,” he said.

Recently, a man who heard about the Walk for Liz donated a wheelchair and ramp to Estes, Blondeaux said.

Those are the random acts of kindness Blondeaux believes in and hopes to foster along his journey.

One of his favorite quotes, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, is “We must be the change we want to see in the world.”

On the web site www.walkforliz.com, Blondeaux includes a quote by author Nicholas Sparks: “Without suffering, there'd be no compassion.”

Blondeaux has encountered suffering along his way.

Ford City resident Bill Oleksak is a relative of Blondeaux. He said people may not be aware of just how hard Blondeaux's journey has been at times.

“It's not all fun and games,” Oleksak said.

Blondeaux agreed.

“It's been emotionally and mentally stressful,” he said.

He's walked through snow out west. In Nebraska, there was rain, high winds and tornado warnings.

“I ran out of water in the Mohave Desert,” he said, adding that he finally got relief at a gas station about 90 miles outside of Las Vegas.

And in Utah, he fought off a badger while camped out in a tent on the side of the road.

“I guess I was sleeping on top of a groundhog village,” he said.

He woke up when the badger burrowed under his body in search of groundhogs. It tore a hole in the tent, and Blondeaux was forced to punch it in the head in an attempt to subdue it. A passing motorist heard Blondeaux yelling and scared it away.

Blondeaux said he has received a mixed reaction from people along the way.

There are those who assume he is homeless and deliberately ignore him, and there are those who don't see him at all. A couple of people have been outright confrontational.

“People think there's something wrong with me until they hear the back story,” he said.

And people have shared their own stories of family illness with Blondeaux.

Overall, he said, “the biggest surprise is how kind people are.”

There has been a show of support from motel owners who have allowed Blondeaux a free night's rest after learning about his cause. His journey has been self-funded, but since the badger attack, his tent is no longer waterproof.

He started off walking with an 80-pound backpack but eventually switched over to pushing his supplies in a cart to ease joint strain.

Blondeaux believes his military experience has helped. He served two tours in Afghanistan as a corpsman combat medic and worked with a Marine sniper team. He volunteered for a time in Cambodia, working with children who were orphaned by war.

Once he reaches his goal of completing the Walk for Liz, Blondeaux said he plans to return to Arizona, find a job and go to college.

He said he doesn't think he'll meet the Estes family any time soon because he's broke.

Even though he's unsure where his academic path will take him, he said he wants to continue helping others in a sustainable way.

More information about the Estes family and Blondeaux's journey can be found at www.walkforliz.com or Walk for Liz on Facebook.

Brigid Beatty is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-543-1303 or bbeatty@tribweb.com.

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