Bonita Springs – An eleven year old boy in an impoverished El Salvador village played at the edge of the dump where children looked for a toy or a pair of shoes. Their village was poor; even food was scarce. “We didn’t feel like we suffered; everyone was the same,” explained twenty-three year old Hector Manley, whose story is an inspiration to anyone who might think, “I can’t” in times of challenge. The El Salvador earthquake eleven years ago threw young Hector into the burning pit at the dump; he felt his young life slipping away until a rescuer dug him out of the burning rubble. He had extensive injuries; both legs required amputation.
The journey from El Salvador to Bonita Springs started with Earthquake Relief and a Rotary project delivering wheelchairs. Don and Karen Manley began helping the courageous child, taking him into their hearts. With his El Salvador family’s agreement, they adopted Hector.
“I have two families,” he explained, “one in El Salvador that I talk to often and see at least twice a year and my adopted family here. My El Salvador parents attended my University of Tampa graduation in May.”
Manley is a young man who plans and accomplishes his goals. He is interested in El Salvador politics as a potential career and looks forward to returning for a long visit. He started a scholarship fund to help children in his village complete more than a few years of education.
He just finished a 2,700-mile kayak run down the Mississippi River to benefit two charities, Wounded Warriors Project and the Wheelchair Foundation, his idea to celebrate graduation. The graduation gift from his U.S. parents included their participation in the 90-day trip that ended just before Labor Day. Manley’s dad said “handicap” is not in his son’s vocabulary: “he refused a sticker for his car.” His next adventure is mountain climbing.
“He’ll need to do it soon if I’m going to accompany him,” said his dad with muted enthusiasm after paddling in a second kayak for about half the trip down the Mississippi. He never dreamed the Christmas gift of kayaks a few years ago would lead to the Mississippi River. The northern Mississippi beginning in Minnesota had many towns and marinas. Amazingly supportive people offered meals, accommodations and donations.
“The widow of a veteran from Iowa, who appreciated the support for Wounded Warriors, told me to meet her at her dock when I arrived; sure enough, she was there with support.”
A man in a paddle boat joined Manley for part of the trip to hear his story. The beautiful northern Mississippi had its challenges: cold winds and miserable hail found him on the river.
The Mississippi was so low in places further south it was closed to barge traffic with a narrow channel down the middle. Drought scorched fields with shriveled crops stretched on either side. In some places the low water endangered the kayak near barge traffic and at other spots he was at the mercy of the barges’ five foot wakes. He did stop at museums and landmarks: the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and climbing to the top of the St. Louis arch were favorites.
The Southern Mississippi is a commercial through way, with as many as 350 miles without a town or marina. Temperatures soared over a hundred degrees beginning in July. Drinking water was limited to the filtered river and he “was very grateful I did not get ill in the middle channel of the Mississippi.” It was impossible to get cool.
“I focused on the New Orleans finish where we planned a celebration - upstaged by Hurricane Isaac. I made it into New Orleans just before the hurricane and waited it out before returning to Florida.”
One last fearful experience came at the bitter end, crossing a nine mile lake in the New Orleans bayous with lightning, wind and waves in the middle of the lake. “I had visions of overturning and floating in to shore. The unexpected lake was a reroute to be safer outside of the low water shipping channels. Once I entered Lake Pontchartrain, I raised my paddle in victory. Even at the most difficult moments, giving up was never an option; the number of people I would help kept me going.”