By: Cristin Tarr Issue: Big Ideas, Smart People Section: Community Polly Letofsky headed west across four continents, 22 countries, and more than 14,000 miles – by foot – to become the first woman to walk around the world.
I had a business meeting late one afternoon with a woman who worked as a sales manager at a local hotel. I was anxious to get through the meeting quickly and go home to my three school-aged children. Little did I know that I was about to meet – Polly Letofsky – an extraordinary woman who had accomplished an extraordinary feat. I asked her my usual client questions, "What have you been doing the last few years? Where have you worked? Where have you lived and what is your favorite hobby?" She sat for a moment and said, "Well, I’ve spent the last five years walking around the world." Needless to say my attention focused and I wanted to hear her story.
The first steps of Letofsky’s "walk" sprouted at age 12. While growing up in Minneapolis, she read about a Minnesota man who had become the first to walk around the world. Inspired, she held the same desire, and wanted to be the first women to walk around the world.
The Inspiration to Walk
In the mid-1990s, several of Letofsky’s family members and friends were diagnosed with breast cancer. So, to ease her mind, she made an appointment with her doctor for a mammogram. Letofsky’s doctor said, "Don’t worry about getting a mammogram; you don’t have any risk factors. It doesn’t run in your family." With great relief, she shared this news with a friend, but her friend was outraged by the doctor’s advice—arguing that 80 percent of those diagnosed with breast cancer have no known risks.
This was Letofsky’s "aha" moment. She thought, "How many women around the world have been told similar tales about breast cancer? How many women around the world have no idea that breast cancer exists?" That’s when she decided to walk for women—to educate women all over the world about the disease that bonds us all—breast cancer. And from that moment, the GlobalWalk for Breast Cancer Awareness was formed. Armed with passion and determination to inform women in every city, town, and rural village about breast cancer, Letofsky began her Guinness World Records-setting journey with very few sponsors and more than 14,000 miles to walk over four continents.
She was not walking for the record books, but rather, for women all over the world. Her hope was that in every country where she walked, she would be a voice to encourage local breast cancer organizations to spread the message of early detection and prevention. Because many countries have cultural sensitivities surrounding breast care, women are often not informed of the severity or the widespread impact of the illness. After two years of planning for the journey, Letofsky sold all of her belongings to fund the work, and she walked out of Vail, Colorado.
The Global Trek
She trekked across the western United States and flew to New Zealand first. After walking across New Zealand, with several substantial mishaps and money running short, she successfully arrived in Australia. In a small rural Australian town, Letofsky met a woman at a stoplight who asked what she was doing. That woman, Margaret, was the president of the local Lions Club; she invited Letofsky into her home that night. What Margaret did next changed the course of the GlobalWalk.
That night Margaret introduced Letofsky to the crowd at the local pub. When they heard her story, the patrons started passing around a hat for contributions to the cause, and within 15 minutes, that little Australian pub had raised $332 for the Breast Cancer Network-Australia. The next morning Margaret called the next Lions Club up the road, and the members took her out to their local pub for fundraising. Then, they called the next Lions Club, and they called the next Lions Club…and in short order, Letofsky found herself doing a 2,000 mile fundraising pub crawl up Australia’s east coast.
With the help of the Lions Clubs, Letofsky was safe every night with someone from the club hosting her with a warm meal and comfortable bed. What’s more, the Lions Clubs of Australia became the primary fundraising venue for the walk, where local excitement generated substantial exposure throughout the region. Their support inspired an entire country to rally behind Letofsky’s GlobalWalk for breast cancer awareness.
As she traveled on, breast cancer groups would hear her story on the radio and throw a fundraising afternoon tea when she walked through their town. The police would patrol "her" road to make sure she was safe. Cancer survivors would host fundraising dinners and "pass" her to the next breast cancer survivor up the road. Even McDonalds jumped on board—by feeding her and hosting fundraising events at every McDonalds up Australia’s Highway 1.
The Turning Point
Six months into the Australian leg of the walk, one of the Lions Clubs invited her to become a member. She agreed and her walk took a major turn. Now with the help of her Lions Club in Mackay, Queensland, Australia, Letofsky’s walk quickly turned into an unprecedented grassroots breast cancer campaign that stemmed from an army of local everyday people who cleared a path from village to village—through Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Turkey and other exotic world locales.
While walking through Singapore and Malaysia, her work reached epic levels. As she entered these Muslim countries, she was repeatedly told by officials that she would not be able to talk about breast cancer. They were wrong. "The Lions Clubs are enormous in Southeast Asia, and are very highly regarded. They are planners, advocates, and community leaders, and when they talk, even the government listens," said Letofsky.
As a result of the persistent grassroots efforts of the Lions Clubs across the region, breast cancer was now being talked about in all five national newspapers—almost daily. The clubs arranged radio interviews, television appearances, and organized educational forums in small towns where they would invite a local doctor to talk to their local women. From these successes, the Lions Clubs in Malaysia recruited the Rotary Clubs to help with the advocacy work, who then invited the Red Cross, whose members decided to join the walk every day. Next, the Hash Harrier Running Clubs joined the walk.
With the number of walkers growing and the press coverage swelling, the government of Malaysia could no longer ignore what was happening. When Letofsky and her entourage of concerned citizens reached the capital of Kuala Lampur, they were met by a member of Parliament, Datuk Napsiah Omar, and 100 of her colleagues. Amid a ceremony filled with pomp and fanfare, Omar not only announced that she was starting a breast cancer awareness campaign in her region, but would urge the Malaysian government to subsidize annual mammograms for women aged 55 to 64. It was the first program of its kind in Malaysia.
Similar success stories continued as Letofsky plodded along at 3 miles per hour. After five years, she brought her GlobalWalk for Breast Cancer full circle spanning 14,124 miles, across 22 countries, wearing 29 pairs of shoes, and raising over $250,000 for 13 breast cancer organizations around the world.
Letofsky continues the legacy of her GlobalWalk for Breast Cancer awareness through her highly regarded motivational speaking engagements and outstanding documentary. In her newly released book 3mph: The Adventures of One Woman’s Walk Around the World, Letofsky highlights the successes of the walk and recounts the story that unfolded. She tells how, "truth was stranger than fiction when I took on the world by myself, but was never alone. Thousands of strangers came to my aid in many small ways and in record numbers. On average, 10 people a day for five years—or nearly 20,000 people—formed a human chain of collaboration around the world to help me, keep me safe, and bring me back to Colorado and ultimately spread the word of breast cancer awareness."
As I think about Polly Leftosky and her GlobalWalk, it confirms for me that people all over the world are better when we are working together. Letofsky proved it—a childhood dream undertaken with determination can prove transformative and can create of culture of collaborative action.
Where would the world be if we could all make a little step toward a big feat?
Cristin Tarr is the founder of Business Service Corps (BSC), an organization that helps companies develop, organize, implement, and measure community outreach programs. BSC maximizes corporate charitable and philanthropic outreach goals while minimizing the use of valuable resources, time and money to create a collective shared value. To learn more about BSC visit www.BusinessServiceCorps.com.