By Thomas Vogel
Twenty-nine-year-old Frank Chiarelli, a 2007 OPRF grad and Dominican University alum, is about halfway through a 3,100 mile walk from Delaware to California.
The months-long solo journey, which began on May 1, is Chiarelli's attempt at increasing awareness about social ills in his hometown, Chicago, and raising money to help at-risk youth in the city through job training and mentorship. He's already secured about $4,700 and has another $1,000 in pledges, just about half of his $10,000 goal. That money is earmarked for local social service organizations.
"A lot of these kids, they don't want to be in a gang," Chiarelli said Aug. 4, while walking between Lawrence and Topeka, Kansas. "They just have to be in a gang to put money on the table. The only thing they are afforded is a dead-end job somewhere. They don't have enough consistent mentorship. They see they could be making much more money on the street. There's little incentive and opportunity for them to grow and move up."
So by fundraising and donating money to local organizations, Chiarelli hopes to have an impact in Chicago, which continues to see high levels of gun violence, unflattering headlines in the national press, and was a constant target of criticism from Donald Trump on the 2016 presidential campaign trail.
"Everyone is bad mouthing Chicago," Chiarelli said. "It's just a great city. I've been all over. I know I have a little bit of bias, but all the cities I've been to, it's one of my favorites — so much culture, so much tradition."
Chiarelli has about 50 pounds of gear with him — food, clothes and first aid supplies — and has been walking nearly 25 miles a day, significantly more than the 15-mile-a-day mark he originally planned. He's cutting a path through 14 states and will finish, if all goes well, at Point Reyes National Seashore, just north of San Francisco in about three months.
He lost 11 pounds in the first week and said he is in the best shape of his life.
Chiarelli talks with either his aunt or father nearly every day via phone and maintains a website called sevenmillionstrides.com, which tracks his location. He is planning on live straming a 24-hour walking fundraiser and recently brought on a part-time intern to help with social media.
Chiarelli, according to his blog, has slept "in a barn, a fishing boat, a park, on the sidewalk under an overhang in case of weather, and the bathroom of a 24-hour diner." Mostly though, local folks, many affiliated with church groups, put him up each night.
He said their show of generosity has reaffirmed his "faith in humanity."
Chiarelli grew up bouncing around Chicago neighborhoods — Rogers Park, Irving Park, Norridge, and Austin — and had a self-described "dangerous and unstable" childhood. His mother fell into drug addiction and alcoholism after some professional troubles with a business partner and died when Chiarelli was 12 years old. He turned to "robbing and stealing" before his dad intervened. He eventually landed in Oak Park with his father and stepmother.
He never spent more than two years at any school before matriculating at Oak Park and River Forest High School. He described his childhood as lacking a consistent family support structure.
"In a lot of ways, it was good that I experienced that. I have a grit to me now. There's not really anything I fear," he said. "I was exposed to it all from such a young age. That was the one positive I took out of it."
It's likely that attitude has helped Chiarelli on his current walk. He said he passed out from exhaustion three days into his journey, has been bitten by a dog, and had people along his route try to rob him. Ticks, inclement weather, construction trucks barreling down interstate highways while he walks along the shoulder, and the need to find shelter are among his near-daily challenges.
"There's times when I'll be on the computer, and I'm thinking, 'Is Amtrak here? I could just go back to Chicago.'" Chiarelli said.
But that's not an option.
"What good would I be if I backed down from this commitment?" he asks. "What kind of man would I be?"
Chiarelli studied business administration at Dominican and worked in freight logistics and automobile sales before cashing out his 401(k) and heading on his current journey. He also did some traveling after college in Australia and South America.
"I spent a lot of time in remote, indigenous communities in remote mountains," Chiarelli said. "I stayed with a lot of families in those areas. It was transformative for me. I saw these families, very poor, they have nothing but they had a solid faith, a foundation."
His friends and family were not so supportive and called his idea "crazy." Some distant family even told him what he was doing wouldn't help change the status quo. But that negativity, he said, only strengthened his resolve.
Chiarelli meets with local officials along his route and says he's learned a lot from those conversations. He didn't rule out a foray into politics after his journey ends.
Whatever happens, he plans to mentor kids when he's back in Chicago.
"I'm going to have a very hands-on involvement, working with these kids," he said. "This is going to continue."
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