For 40 years, they’ve walked the walk to feed the hungry

Barbara Russo (left), 72, and Peggy Kemmett, 80, have been committed to the Walk for Hunger since 1971. Last year, the event drew 44,000 participants and raised $3.8 million to help feed people in Massachusetts. Barbara Russo (left), 72, and Peggy Kemmett, 80, have been committed to the Walk for Hunger since 1971. Last year, the event drew 44,000 participants and raised $3.8 million to help feed people in Massachusetts. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By David Filipov
Globe Staff / May 1, 2010

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They have walked in the cold rain. They have walked in the hot sun. They have walked though illness and injury and the toll that time takes on the arms and the legs and the back and the feet. They have outlasted friends and loved ones who once walked alongside them.

For 40 years, Barbara Russo, 72, and Peggy Kemmett, 80,, have collected donations, trained, and persuaded themselves that on the first Sunday in May, they will take a long, long walk so that less fortunate people might eat.

And tomorrow, the two friends will be at it again, walking among the tens of thousands who take part in the Walk for Hunger, a 20-mile trek from Boston Common through the Back Bay, Brookline, Newton, Watertown, Cambridge, and back to the Common.

“If I can say, ‘Gee, I helped somebody,’ that’s good,’’ said Kemmett, who will be making her 40th consecutive walk.

“You can’t save the whole world, but it’s good to know that because of you, somebody can eat,’’ said Russo, who has missed only one year, around 1975, when she had a bad cold and “my mother hid my shoes.’’

Tomorrow’s event kicks off a season of pledge walks for all manner of good causes — breast cancer, the Jimmy Fund, AIDS awareness — but Walk for Hunger’s organizers say theirs is the oldest of them all. The walk, conceived at the Paulist Center on Park Street, and first held in Quincy in 1969, raised $26,000 that year. Last year, the event, which has kicked off and finished in Boston since 1970, drew 44,000 participants and raised $3.8 million to help feed hungry people in Massachusetts, according to Project Bread, the nonprofit organizer of the event.

Russo, of Hyde Park, and Kemmett, who now resides in Quincy, raise only a small part of that — this year, Kemmett has raised less than $700 and Russo close to $800 — but over the course of four decades, it has added up to thousands.

On Thursday, they met at Kemmett’s home at the Clement A. O’Brien Towers to reflect on their history of ambulatory altruism.

Russo had the idea to do the walk in 1971, when both women, now retired, were working with special needs students at Paul A. Dever Elementary School in Dorchester.

“I thought she was out of her mind,’’ Kemmett recalled. Then again, Kemmett had lived in Mission Hill all her life and never learned to drive.

“I am of the generation that if you wanted to go somewhere, get your boots on, honey, and start walking,’’ she said. At 80, Kemmett said she has never taken medication, except for the occasional aspirin. She got hit by a skateboarder once. That year she had to stop after 13 miles.

Kemmett used to be able to keep up with Russo. These days, Russo is too fast. Trim and fit, Russo is always in motion. She shows off karate moves. She goes on 60-minute walks three or four times a week.

“I love to walk,’’ Russo said. “But I would have no incentive if people didn’t give me money to walk.’’

One of her donors walked for 27 years, many of them on heavy steel braces he wore because of cerebral palsy, until he could walk no longer. Russo’s sister, Jean Reitsma, walked for 13 years, until back problems sidelined her.

In 2005, nine months after she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, Russo made the walk. “I was a very lucky girl,’’ she said.

Another year it rained so hard, Russo and Kemmett had to don garbage bags for shelter.

They never had photos taken of their walks.

“We were not worried about publicity,’’ Russo said. Project Bread has records dating back to 1989 that attest to their annual participation.

Mary Ritz Walling, who lives in Hudson, was one of the organizers of the first walk and was one of only about 2,000 people who took part in the first Boston walk in 1970. She has walked “at least 26 years’’ — she lived in Maryland for a number of years — and could not recall anyone who had done it for 39 or 40. Though that does not mean that they are not out there.

“There’s a whole bunch of people who just quietly do it,’’ Walling said. “They’re not doing it for competition; they are doing it because they want to help, and that’s the bottom line. I can’t think of anything better to do on the first Sunday of May.’’

Kemmett and Russo share the sentiment.

“Imagine what an unhungry world it would be,’’ Russo said, “if everyone kept walking and walking and walking.’’

UPDATE: Barbara Russo and Peggy Kemmet finished this year's walk in nine and a half hours. "It was a toughie," Kemmet said. "I almost didn't make it." Kemmet was going to get on a bus that was picking up tired walkers along the route, but the line was too long so she kept walking. "I kept pouring water over Peggy because it was so hot," Russo said. She said she finished the route with "no blisters, no pains and no hurts" and is already training for next year's walk. And Kemmet? "I'm thinking about it," she said. In the meantime, the two get together for poker nights. "I usually win," Russo said. "I can always tell what kind of hand she has." - July 15, 2010

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