Former cop walks 15,000 km to help Filipino children

By Phan Duong   April 5, 2023 | 12:24 am PT
A barefoot Thomas Kellenberger stepped into the Swiss Ambassador to Vietnam’s house in a tattered pair of pants on March 22.

His t-shirt had the words "Kuya Thom goes home. Walking 15,000 km to give children a home" printed on it.

According to Thomas, his journey is not for adventure or record breaking.

Thomas is walking for Filipino children whose lives depend on landfill sites. These children are now being harassed and treated with violence.

The Swiss is the founder of the charity organization Island Kids Philippines (IKP), based in the city of Cagayan de Oro, the Philippines. Two years ago, he started this 15,000-kilometer journey with the aim of raising funds to build schools for Filipino children.

The now 41-year-old Thomas Kellenberger (right) and his companion on a part of his Kuya Thom goes home journey, at the private house of the Ambassador of Switzerland to Vietnam, on March 22. Photo: VnExpress/Phan Duong.

The now 41-year-old Thomas Kellenberger (right) and his companion on a part of his "Kuya Thom goes home" journey, at the private house of the Ambassador of Switzerland to Vietnam, on March 22, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong.

With his Swiss hometown Intelaken as the starting point, Thomas has passed through various deserts and mountains in 22 different countries since August 25, 2021. Vietnam is his last destination before he flies to the Philippines to end his journey this May.

Thomas noted that it had not always been possible for him to walk, due to water obstacles and security situations in some countries. But the adventure-loving man has still often chosen difficult paths, whether it was deserts in Kazakhstan and Pakistan, or a trail through 5,000-meter-high mountains in Nepal. One of the hardest parts of his journey was when he was stung by wasps while passing through the mountains in Great Himalayan National Park.

"The irony is that although I survived all of those dangerous places, I almost died walking down an ordinary street when a rock fell down from above," he said.

Loneliness was a thing that Thomas had to deal with during his trip. Sometimes he had companions, but for the majority of the journey, he was all alone. Especially in remote areas. He didn’t even see any human beings for eight consecutive days when he was in Ladakh, India. He also suffered from food poisoning, diarrhea, and fever thrice.

"My survival kit included chloramine B to treat drinking water, a portable kitchen, a tent, and an air-mattress," he said.

However, rather than physical challenges and times when he was threatened and abducted by criminal gangs, messy traffic and severe pollution situations in India and Bangladesh were the things that scared him the most.

"I didn’t hesitate for even one second because I did not start the journey because I wanted to break anyone’s record. Nor did I do this to go beyond my own limits. It was simply because there were kids waiting for me at my final destination."

Thomas in Manali, the state of Himachal Pradesh, India, in October 2022. Photo courtesy of Thomas.

Thomas in Manali, the state of Himachal Pradesh, India, in October 2022. Photo courtesy of Thomas

The man who comes from one of the richest countries in the world happened to be introduced to the Philippines 15 years ago. He visited the Southeast Asian country upon an invitation from a friend, expecting to explore the islands and go sea diving. However, he was more impressed when he saw poor children wandering on the streets and making their livings at landfills.

"That was not even the worst. There was another time while having dinner by the sea, someone approached and asked if I was interested in child prostitution. I was shocked," Kellenberger recalls.

That moment was when the 25-year-old (at the time) police officer knew he couldn’t stand still. During that trip, he and his friend rescued four children and got them to safe places. After going back to Switzerland, he started to raise funds. He then quit his job to focus on his new calling. Many tried to prevent him from doing so, except for his mother Ruth Kellenberger.

The mother and son then became the founding members of Island Kids Philippines (IKP) in 2007. Over the past years, Thomas has stayed in his "second hometown" and operated the organization, while his mother has stayed in Switzerland and raised donations. The majority of their funds have come from Switzerland and Germany.

Thomas stated that helping the children harmed by trafficking, violence, and abuse was not easy. He said that many of the culprits were, for most of part, the victimized children’s relatives, or people of power and wealth.

Among approximately 1,500 victims helped by his organization, there’s at least one case that break Thomas’ heart every time he recalls it.

It was a 10-year-old girl who was sold to a brothel and was rescued four year later. She was sent to a safe village built by Thomas with lots of physical wounds and a broken soul. It was IKP that brought her support and lit her inner belief again. Social psychological specialists and other people joined the force to help her heal.

There was another case, in which a child was abused by a figure of power and wealth. IKP supported the child’s family and brought the case to court. However, the plaintiff’s attorney and the judge were bribed, and the child lost the case. So, Thomas says, there are definitely times when the fight for justice seems about to fail. But that’s never been an occasion for him to give up.

Taking the advantage of his own skills as a former police officer and a Master of Social Activities degree-holder, Thomas successfully collected more vital evidence and brought the case back to trial. This time they won, and the culprit was punished.

Thomas (far right), his associates, and Filipino children at a school built by IKP in the Philippines. Photo courtesy of Thomas.

Thomas (far right), his associates, and Filipino children at a school built by IKP in the Philippines. Photo courtesy of Thomas

In 2020, Thomas was notified that his mother was suffering from the last stage of cancer. He had to come back to his home country to take care of her. His mother told him her last wish was to pay the village in Cagayan de Oro a last visit.

That last trip was extremely special, as it was not only a chance for Thomas to show gratitude to his mother after a long time living far from her, but also an occasion when Ruth could see with her own eyes what her son had achieved after 15 years. Two schools, with 12 classes, were built, and thousands of children were given the basic rights. "My mom was proud after the trip," Thomas shared.

Despite these undeniable achievements, child trafficking and prostitution still exist. The number of children in poverty remains high. Hence, Thomas decided to start his walk for Filipino children.

Currently, Thomas has finished 13,000 km and raised US$92,000. This is still far from his target of $165,000, which he wants to use to build a second safe village. He is planning to write a book and make a documentary film about his trip with the aim of raising more funds.

During his journey, he also met a lot of people in charge of operating other non-governmental organization. He formulated connections to raise public awareness about child victims of abandonment, abuse, and exploitation. Many in his new network have promised to assist one another in cases of emergency.

"I wandered around Hanoi and was surprised. Both Vietnam and the Philippines are in Southeast Asia. However, I did not see many street children here, unlike the Philippines. Hopefully I can speak to the authorities in Vietnam to learn from your country’s experiences," the Swiss man said.

The Ambassador of Switzerland to Vietnam Thomas Gass called Thomas Kellenberger a "hero." "We can really be inspired by and learn a lot from what he does," he noted.

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