‘I had a goal, and I set out to do it’: Yorkton, Sask., man walks across Canada — just because

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It was mid-February when Zayell Johnston splashed water from the Pacific Ocean on his face in Victoria, B.C. and  set off on a long and often torturous nine-month trek across Canada.

The Yorkton, Sask., man, 27, would earn the nickname « Gump » from friends and strangers — in honour of the fictional movie hero Forrest Gump — as he logged 11.5 million steps on his Fitbit, trudging through snow, hail and rain in his push to fulfil a personal goal.

That’s right. He walked 9,000 kilometres across Canada just because he wanted to.

« I’m just a normal, everyday dude, » Johnson said. « I had a goal, and I set out to do it. »

Most people who walk, run or bike across Canada do so to raise money for charity or awareness of an issue. But for Johnson, it was a personal journey.

He recorded videos along the way and gave the trip the title: « Just out for a walk ».

Peace of mind

It all started seven years ago, Johnston recalls, when he graduated from high school and drafted a five-year « to do » list to keep moving forward in life. The list included finishing college, getting a job, backpacking across Europe, developing six-pack abs and walking across Canada.

« I don’t know how I got the crazy notion of walking across the country, but I didn’t want drive across it, » Johnson said. « At the end of the day, you can never see Canada in one go. All of Canada — I think it’s impossible, there’s too much. » 

Zayell Johnston averaged 50 kilometres a day on his walk across Canada.

Before his succesful trek Johnston wasn’t having much luck checking things off of his personal list. He did spend two months backpacking in Europe, but was struggling in other parts of his life. After losing his job in Vancouver, he returned home to Yorkton and set his sights on completing a cross-Canada journey.

Why am I putting myself in this situation? Why am I torturing myself?– Questions asked of himself by cross-Canada trekker Zayell Johnston

« At the beginning of the journey, you could say I was running away to kind of to reflect on where I was at in life, » Johnson told CBC News.

He posted a picture of a highway on Facebook with the caption: « Oh travel be kind, I’m searching for some peace of mind. »

As with all trekkers, he knew the contents of his backpack would be vitally important. It weighed about 20 kilograms and included a tent, a sleeping bag, camp stove, long johns, two pairs of underwear and wool socks. He carried a GPS so his mother could track his movements.

He officially started his walk at Mile 0 of Trans Canada Highway in Victoria, which is also home to a statue of Terry Fox, whose attempt to across Canada on one-leg to raise money for cancer research made him a national hero. 

9,000 kilometres

Johnston had only walked for a couple weeks before hitting blizzard conditions on the Coquihalla Highway in the B.C. Interior. He spent a month working at a ski hill, then mailed his winter jacket home to his mother and kept heading east.

When he was pummeled by rain near Revelstoke, B.C., he did some serious introspection: « Why am I putting myself in this situation? Why am I torturing myself? » Johnston says he asked himself. « Like, nobody cares that you’re doing this. You don’t have to walk through this. »

But again, he had set a goal and was determined to achieve it. 

Zayell Johnston celebrates the end of his journey at Cape Spear, N.L, the easternmost point in Canada. ‘No words can describe this moment and no camera could truly capture how I felt.’ (Facebook/Zayell Johnston)

Over the next seven months, he soldiered through physical exhaustion and loneliness as he averaged 50 kilometres a day.

He wore out four pairs of shoes and choked down countless protein bars and peanuts. He also developed a deep love and respect for wool socks. 

Kindness of strangers

Johnston had a budget of $7,000 for equipment and necessities, but rarely used it for motels or restaurants. He pitched a tent in fields and private areas, and couch surfed at the homes of friends and strangers.  At times, he went a couple weeks without a shower or laundry.

That, he notes, is what made the kindness of strangers so remarkable at times.

« You can imagine what I smelled like in the middle of the summer, » he said. « But there were people scattered throughout northern Ontario who offered me a place to stay, and it was definitely appreciated because of the summer heat there. » 

Zayell Johnston pitched a tent in fields and private spots as he walked across Canada, and rarely paid for a motel or campground. (Facebook/Zayell Johnston)

Johnston crossed the country, a step at a time, with only two tiny « cheats » when he felt he had no choice but to accept a ride.  One was near the B.C.- Alberta border when a forest ranger told him they were doing avalanche control with explosives. The ranger forbade Johnson from walking through the area, but offered him a 10-minute ride to other side of the blast zone. The second ride was from a stranger outside Winnipeg. 

« I was walking through torrential downpours and hail for about 10 minutes, » Johnson said, when a truck pulled over, its  driver insistent on giving Johnston a ride to an underpass two kilometres away, where he could hide out from the rain.

Pinnacle moment

When Johnston reached Thunder Bay, Ont., he pitched his tent near the monument that marks where medical issues force Terry Fox was forced to stop his cross-Canada run. Johnston says he was deeply moved by Fox’s words etched into stone:

« I just wish people would realise that anything is possible if you try. Dreams are made if people try. »

In mid-November, just before sunrise, Johnston stepped onto a cliff’s edge at Cape Spear, N.L., the easternmost point in Canada, for what he calls his « pinnacle moment. » He was 30 pounds lighter than when he started, his face covered with a long beard. Chilly winds slapped his face as he hoisted his backpack into the air and let out a triumphant yell. 

« It was surreal, » Johnson said. « That moment was so brief, but the hard work took so long to get there. I wish those moments would last a little longer, but that’s just the beauty of it. The end. The payout. »

Johnston splashed his face with water from the Atlantic Ocean and recorded the final instalment for his video diary. 

He wrote this caption: « No words can describe this moment and no camera could truly capture how I felt. » 

Johnston had set up a Gofundme campaign to help cover expenses, but it only raised $620 and he didn’t need most of it. So at the end of his trip, he divvied it up and sent cheques for roughly $50 to the Canadian Mental Health Association branch in all 10 provinces.

Now that Johnston can check his cross-Canada walk off his list, he says he can move on to other goals, such as paying off his student loan, becoming a forest firefighter, and the continuing quest for those elusive washboard abs. 

Zayell Johnson logged 11.5 million steps on his Fitbit during his nine-month trek. (Facebook/Zayell Johnson)

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Santa Fund reaches $1.7M goal, thanks to donors who put smiles on young faces at Christmas

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We did it.

Hundreds of volunteers and thousands of donors came together to make a little bit of Christmas magic for underprivileged kids across the Toronto area.

Thanks to Star readers’ overwhelming generosity, 45,000 vulnerable kids woke up on Christmas morning with a box of gifts under their tree.

With your donations, our intrepid volunteers helped prepare and distribute the boxes across five cities, braving wind and snow, traffic and parking, to deliver what for many children is the only present they’ll receive this year.

“I am thrilled with the overwhelming community response we have received from across the Toronto area,” Torstar President and Toronto Star Publisher John Boynton said. “It makes me proud to know that residents have come together once again, all in the spirit of Santa Claus. Thank you to all our generous supporters who have helped put a smile on the faces of more than 45,000 young kids at Christmas.”

“Now that we’ve accomplished our goal, we can look forward to a wonderful new year knowing that we put a smile on thousands of children’s faces this Christmas,” said the Santa Claus Fund’s director, Barbara Mrozek.

Mrozek relates how she received a note from a woman attending the fund’s annual Christmas concert that described how the donor had been “a proud recipient” of the Star box when she was a child. Growing up poor in Kensington Market, she and the other kids who got the boxes would trade the gifts.

“I never realized it then, but the Star box was more than a box filled with goodies,” Ellen Trotman wrote in the note. “It was something to look forward to and more importantly, it brought the community that much closer. Brought it to care. It created an opportunity to get to know those kids you probably never played with or even offered a passing hello.

“Unless you lived it, you have no idea what effect the Star box had on people’s lives and community. So, no. It wasn’t just a box. It was everything good that only happens at Christmas.”

One hundred per cent of the more than $1.7 million raised has gone toward warm clothing, small toys, books, cookies and dental hygiene items for thousands of children from newborns to age 12 in Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Ajax and Pickering.

To everyone who donated their time or money, on behalf of everyone at the Star, thank you — and we can’t wait to do this again next year.

Jack Hauen is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @jackhauen

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Sock collection for Kelowna homeless exceeds goal

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Cole Himer thought his goal to collect 1,000 pairs of socks for Kelowna’s homeless was ambitious.

Reaching that goal turned out to be easy when donations started pouring in.

“We ended up raising 2,040 pairs of socks,” Himer said.

That equals two pairs of socks for every person living in a shelter facility in Kelowna, he said.


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The 18-year-old and his family brought their winter tradition to Kelowna, having moved from Edmonton recently.

“Socks for our Homeless” was organized by Himer, his father and other young people at his church, Emmanuel Pentecostal in West Kelowna.

As word of the charitable effort spread, donations came in through Rose Valley Elementary, Mar Jok Elementary, FedEx and Himer’s church.


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“It’s good to see the Christmas spirit and people chipping in,” Kelowna Gospel Mission executive director Randy Benson said.

Benson met Himel as he brought a box to their shelter Tuesday afternoon.

“Socks are the number one item that are requested for, especially at this time of year. It seems like we can never have too many,” Benson said.

Himel is grateful for the community’s support that made his first sock drive in Kelowna successful.

“We just hope to spread the joy that Jesus did at Christmas,” Himel said.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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Salvation Army sets $160K goal for Christmas kettle campaign in Guelph – Guelph

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The Salvation Army has set a goal of raising $160,000 for its annual Christmas kettle campaign in Guelph this year.

It’s the same target as last year’s campaign, but the organization fell short, raising about $135,000.


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“We’re confident we’ll make it this year,” said Beverleigh Broughton, the community and family services co-ordinator with the Salvation Army in Guelph.

The money collected goes toward filling hampers with food for local families in need and Broughton said the goal is based on how many hampers they expect to send out.

“Last year we did 1,045 food hampers and this year we’re doing 1,120,” she said. “That increase is based on the trend we’ve seen through the year and what we feel the need will likely be for this Christmas.”

She added that the number of hampers has been well over 1,000 for several years now.

“We’re seeing more and more people work really hard who just can’t quite make ends meet, especially at Christmas.”

The kettles, which will collect donations until Dec. 24, will be scattered around the city at Stone Road Mall, Walmart on Woodlawn Road and all Zehrs locations.


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In December, kettles will be set up at all LCBO locations and Costco.

There are also drop-off sites for toys at Stone Road Mall, Walmart, Guelph Toyota, any of the fire stations in Guelph, and the Salvation Army building on Gordon Street.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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