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537 Miles, 35 Alumni Stories

Why I walked the California coastline, and how alumni helped
February 22, 2011

“Stop hitting buttons! You’re going to trigger the police response!” our photographer yelled. It was nearly a month into a four-month, 500-plus-mile walk across California, during which we were visiting classrooms to talk to students about diabetes. The photographer, Maureen Roque, was trapped in our host’s home with me and my mother, Kiriaki Williams, because I couldn’t remember the four-digit code to disarm the alarm.

Wellness walk Melissa Williams ’06 treks through California’s Crystal Cove State Park.

When not walking across California, I’m a management consultant focused on the health-care industry. In 2007, I came across some bleak predictions: one in three kids born in 2000 will develop diabetes by 2050. For Hispanic children, the odds are one in two.

I created the California Wellness Walk in an attempt to keep those predictions from coming true. I figured that walking from San Diego to San Francisco would get the kids’ attention, and then it would be up to us to get them excited about eating well and being active. In the end, we walked 537 miles and spoke to more than 8,000 students. And I know many of them took our message to heart. One girl poured her chocolate milk out a window. A boy who was kicked out of class every day for misbehaving not only paid attention to us but shushed his classmates and encouraged them to listen as well. And another girl told her teacher, “I’m going to run the mile faster than I ever have before so I don’t get diabetes.”

None of this would have been possible without the support of MIT’s alumni community. In the fall of 2009, I e-mailed 1,000 alumni through the Infinite Connection, asking if they’d be willing to host us along the way; nearly 150 offered their homes, and we stayed with 35 of them. Our hosts included recent grads and red coats, single men and multigenerational households, young couples and retirees. Never before have I met so many interesting people in such a short time. In any case, that’s how we found ourselves stuck in John Kraus’s entryway.

At 92, John Kraus ‘41 was our oldest host, but you would never guess it. His taut skin and bright face don’t look a day over 65. He’s an avid sailor and spends every Monday out on the Pacific with his crew. John regaled us with stories (he’d earned his MIT degree in general engineering) and even indulged my curiosity by bringing out his red coat and badge (the first time I had seen either in person!).

Though John leads his neighborhood watch in Newport Beach and is very conscientious about security, he had said that he wasn’t going to set the house alarm while we were there. But we’d insisted that he should, assuring him that we would remember the pass code. Famous last words! Fortunately, before the alarm system could trigger a call to the police, John woke up and turned it off, and we were finally on our way.

That day came amid two weeks of heavy rains, during which we lucked out by conducting workshops indoors. One such day, however, our host was not so lucky.

While at MIT, Jim Czarnowski, SM ‘97, helped develop a boat whose efficient propulsion system was modeled after penguin flippers. Now he’s director of engineering at Hobie Cat. The stormy day that we were safely in a classroom, Jim was out on the Pacific with his trusty dog, testing a new prototype kayak.

Jim and his wife, Elena, had just moved in when they hosted us, and even with many of their things still in boxes, they made us feel right at home. The first night, Elena brought the patio furniture inside, draped the table and chairs in sarongs, and served a delicious dinner.

At another stop, we returned “home” one afternoon to find that Christina Stanley ‘85 had prepared perhaps the best soup I’ve ever had. It combined lentils, spices, and handmade Italian sausage from a local butcher. Then, to top it off, Christina suggested that we join her husband, Dave, and their son, Spike, for a sail around San Diego Bay.

When not sailing, Christina serves as chief deputy medical examiner for San Diego County. She shared the harrowing tale of an obese 13-year-old girl who died from complications of diabetes, comparing the fatty deposits on her liver to those seen in older alcoholics. As she told us other stories, Dave interjected some bone-dry humor.

John, Jim, Christina, and the dozens of other alums who hosted us helped me achieve my dream. After getting to meet so many alumni and seeing all the paths they’ve taken, I am thankful to be part of this community.

Melissa Williams ‘06 did the California Wellness Walk from January to May of 2010. See photos of her alumni hosts at

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