ANDOVER — Hiking 1,000 miles in 56 days would be hard enough. But then having to raise $250,000 while doing it? That's taking it to another level.
That's just what retired New Hampshire businessman Dwight Barnes, 65, set off to do this week. He left Boston on Monday and his first official stop was Tuesday, when he sauntered into the McDonald's restaurant on Route 28/North Main Street at about 11 a.m.
A colorful array of balloons and a big contingent of McDonald's employees were waiting for his arrival. He strode up wearing a fully loaded backpack, festooned with an American flag and the McDonald's logo. On his feet he wore a pair of red-and-white striped Ronald McDonald socks.
That's no coincidence. Barnes, former owner of two McDonald's restaurants in New Hampshire, retired three years ago from the business he had been in for nearly 40 years.
Now he's giving back. The money he raises from his 1,000-mile journey through every New England state will go to the Ronald McDonald House Charities of New England, an organization that operates two homes for the families of hospitalized pediatric patients, two mobile care vehicles and two in-hospital facilities, also for the families of pediatric patients.
"After I retired, I went from 60 to 0 overnight," Barnes said during a telephone interview from the Andover McDonald's. "It was a lot less activity and I started gaining weight. So I started walking and after a while I realized I could walk a good distance."
As a former franchise owner, Barnes had always been involved in the charity, so he combined his support of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of New England with his newfound love of walking and came up with a bold plan.
He mapped out a route that started at the Ronald McDonald House in Boston, a facility with 11 apartments for families whose children are in a local hospital for treatment of any affliction that may require an extended stay.
His plan was to head north, stopping along the way at as many McDonald's restaurants as possible, along with Ronald McDonald houses across New England. He will also stop at any hospital that houses one of the family support facilities funded by the charity.
First stop along the way
On what is being called the Journey Home RMHCNE, Barnes made it to the Andover McDonald's on Tuesday morning, then hiked his way up Route 28 to the Lawrence store by around 1 p.m.
At both restaurants, he met with the owners, who were happy to see him.
"I've known him 20-plus years," said Carissa Haley, owner/operator of the Andover McDonald's. "I feel like we're the kickoff store since we are the first restaurant he's stopped at. It's such an honor to host him. This is so amazing. My whole team is here to meet him."
The visit paid off for Barnes, who picked up a surprise check for $1,500 — a donation that should help him reach his lofty goal of $250,000.
"I hadn't seen Carissa in a long time," said Barnes, noting that they used to speak often as fellow store owners. "It was great to catch up with her. They had balloons on the front of the store and the whole team was here to greet me."
He added that Haley's donation was "very generous."
According to Nicole Anderson, chief advancement officer of the New England charity, Barnes is well on his way to reaching the fundraising goal.
"He was already over $60,000 in sponsorships and donations before starting his walk just yesterday (Monday)," she said. "He's amazing and we are confident the community will get behind his efforts and get him to the $250,000 goal."
Relief during a hard year
When Barnes first approached her about his fundraising idea, she couldn't believe her good luck.
The organization has had to make major adjustments to its fundraising plan due to COVID-19, and she was beginning to fear that this year could result in a big financial hit.
"We had to cancel and alter all our fund-raising events," said Anderson, who is based in Providence, where another Ronald McDonald House is located with 28 bedrooms for families. "We are seeing significant revenue loss."
At first, pre-COVID, the idea was for Barnes to do the 1,000-mile hike to raise $100,000, which was intended to be used to help build a new facility in the Boston area with capacity for 120 families.
After the pandemic struck, however, Barnes' fund-raising hike took on added importance as the focus shifted.
Instead of $100,000, his fund-raising goal jumped to $250,000. And instead of using the money for a new facility, the money is now going to help with operating expenses.
The result is that Barnes has become somewhat of a knight in shining armor to the charity.
"Dwight has a lot on his shoulders right now," Anderson said.
While Anderson and her team credit Barnes for his hike, he credits them for undertaking a lot of the logistical work necessary to make it possible, like booking hotel or motel rooms along the route and coordinating with a different region of the charity to help get the word out.
"I set up the route and identified the hotels, and they take the ball from there and make all the arrangements," he said. "They've been a huge, huge help."
Anderson said many hotels and motels have offered to provide free lodging, understanding it's for a good cause.
She added that in the years she's been working for the charity, she's never seen or worked with anyone like Barnes.
"This is a first," she said. "We have people coming to us with ideas, but nothing of this magnitude."
To read more about Dwight's journey and to donate, go to: www.rmhcne.org/rmhc-ne-events/join-the-journey-home-rmhcne/