BANNER ELK — Owen Standley is using his legs to fight against a disease that robs people of their ability to use theirs. The Pennsylvania native, who shared his story at the Avery County Rotary Club’s weekly luncheon on Thursday, April 1, is on a mission to raise funds for polio eradication by hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Standley is a member of Rotary International and is using the organization’s extensive connections to raise awareness and funds by sharing his story and his mission to Rotary Clubs situated along the 2,200-mile trail the stretches from Georgia to Maine. His ultimate goal is to raise a total of $100,000, while also spreading information about the real possibility of eradicating the disease.
“In no way is $100,000 going to eradicate polio, but I am out here in some ways proselytizing about how awesome Rotary is and how we are well on our way to eradicating another disease. The more that people are aware of it and talking about it, the more we can push the needle forward and make this goal,” Standley said.
The previous week, Standley had passed through the part of the AT that runs through Avery County, which includes Carver’s Gap and Yellow Mountain, before being picked up after crossing into Elk Park. The timing could not have been more perfect as rain blanketed the region before temperatures dropped below freezing by the morning of April 1.
“It was so foggy yesterday (March 31), it seemed like a scene from a movie where there’s someone giving you directions and they’re like, ‘You’ve got to go that way,’ and you look back and the person you were talking to disappears and you’re left in the mist,” Standley said.
Standley initially set out on the AT on March 9 from Amicalola Falls in Georgia, but his journey began two years before when he and his wife were beginning a weight loss challenge, in which he was asked, ”What is something you thought you could never accomplish?” Standley wrote down “Hike the entire Appalachian Trail” without knowing much about the trail, or the ins and outs of backpacking for that matter.
“Something stirred inside of me that wanted to accomplish something great,” Standley stated.
While admittedly on a quest for personal enlightenment and fulfillment, Standley wanted to partner with a cause that was bigger than himself to give the excursion more meaning and significance beyond his own self-development. Standley said that as a member of Rotary International since 2011, he was aware that polio eradication had been a focus of the organization since its first immunization project in 1979.
“After decades of research, funding and infrastructure, Rotary continues to be in the forefront in the fight against polio, a vaccine-preventable disease. I could easily have aligned with other causes that I am passionate about, but it made the most sense to reciprocate the love and support Rotary has shown to me. In doing so, hopefully we can reach our financial goal and move the needle closer to a polio free world,” Standley stated.
During his presentation with rotary members, Standley noted that polio is still prevalent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which are the last two endemic countries, meaning that the disease is found regularly in these countries. Moreover, last year the World Health Organization officially declared the content of Africa polio-free after no new cases of the disease were recorded in four years.
“The biggest reason that we still have polio in Pakistan and Afghanistan is because of the Taliban. They’re spreading misinformation to scare families from taking the polio vaccine and saying that (the U.S.) is trying to sterilize their children. The objective of terror is chaos, right? They don’t care who they hurt,” Standley said. “If we succeed in our mission to eradicate the disease, then that means that they have lost in their attempts to thwart all of that.”
In order to donate to Owen’s Odyssey or to check in on his progress, click to hikeforpolio.org.