On a mission to save a sacred pilgrimage

Camino de Santiago walkers launch app to save trail’s hostels

Friday, May 28, 2021, Vol. 45, No. 22
By Margaret Sizemore

They say the long weeks of walking 500 miles across Spain helped them heal. One says it saved his life.

These hikers say they were profoundly touched by the people and places they encountered on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage – so much so that they have formed a Tennessee company specifically to give away most of their money to the small Camino hostels trying to stay alive during a global pandemic.

Camino for Good was formed last summer and focuses on a smartphone app that enables its users to virtually walk the Camino by logging in the miles they walk in their daily life. It has raised more than $74,000 this year, with that money going to 29 small hostels – called albergues – on the Camino.

The money comes from the $60 registration fee paid by app subscribers, with 75% of that income pledged to support the hostels.

One of the founders, Bellevue resident Susan DePue, says the idea for the app came to her last year after she saw a similar approach applied to an annual fundraising walk across Tennessee. She proposed the idea to a hiking friend, Kelly Gilfillan, and it branched out to include three other pilgrims, two in California and one in Australia.

“And so we formed a public benefit corporation,” says DePue, who walked the Camino in 2018 to mark her 70th birthday. “I had that little thought, nothing compared to what it’s become.”

The ancient Camino is made up of a network of pilgrimage routes across Spain that some say resemble a scallop seashell. All roads lead to Santiago de Compostela, where tradition holds the tomb of St. James the Apostle lies beneath the altar in the great cathedral. The most popular route has been the 500-mile Camino Francés, which begins at St. Jean Pied de Port in France, crossing the Pyrenees into Spain, where a humble cow grate marks the border.

Kelly Gilfillan, left, and Susan DePue, both whom have hiked the Camino de Santiago, are part of a group that developed an app to help save the 29 small hostels, or albergues, on the Camino.  The albergues are having financial difficulties because of pandemic restrictions on hiking the trail.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

The app features 207 towns on the Camino Francés with thousands of photos contributed by pilgrims, as well as personal stories, walking tips and motivational content. Group members say they plan to include other routes in the future.

The founders are veteran pilgrims, each with moving stories of their experience and an earnest desire to help the Camino survive.

The albergues are crucial to the pilgrim’s journey, offering a place to spend the night after long days of walking. The Pilgrim Reception Office at Santiago de Compostela reported that 327,281 walking pilgrims came through its doors in 2019. Borders and routes were closed with the pandemic in 2020, and many albergue owners found themselves in danger of permanently closing.

The horizon for any sort of recovery keeps moving away. Health and travel alerts from U.S. Embassy officials were raised to a red Level 4 in April with the warning that “Travelers should avoid all travel to Spain.” The high alert has remained in place this month, even as member nations of the European Union are preparing to open their borders to summer visitors who have been vaccinated for the COVID virus.

Camino for Good co-founder Bill Austin, a California business owner, has walked four routes and says he is eager to return once Spain reopens to Americans. His first Camino trek was in 2014 after suffering great personal loss.

“It was really surprising to me the impact the Camino had on me. I wasn’t expecting it to be that emotional, to be that healing. I didn’t want to stop. It saved me in so many ways,” he says. “I thought I’d go escape, walk a little bit, figure out where I wanted to go when I got back … I definitely didn’t expect the albergues, which were an amazing surprise to me.”

Susan DePue, left, and Kelly Gilfillan hike in Percy Warner, a vastly different experience than the 500-mile Camino de Santiago.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

Father Mark Beckman, the pastor of St. Henry Church in the Catholic Diocese of Nashville, walked the Camino in the spring of 2014 during a sabbatical. He recalled the role of a number of albergues that made his journey memorable. One, Orisson, is halfway up the Pyrenees, situated for spectacular views and cozy pilgrim meals with people from different nations breaking bread and sharing their stories.

Another was Albergue Verde in the town of Hospital de Óbrigo, where pilgrims were treated to vegan meals and a yoga class.

“And they also did some guitar playing, singing folk songs, and they sang a lullaby as we were falling asleep by candlelight. It was a very special albergue,” Beckman adds.

The virtual approach can be a good way to connect with the journey, perhaps even in preparation for an actual visit in the future, he says.

“This is an ancient Catholic tradition. It goes back centuries, back to the 800s at least, a major pilgrimage of the medieval period,” he points out. “But the really beautiful thing about the 20th and 21st centuries is that it has really opened up and become universal. There really are people from every possible faith background and even of no faith background … and I do believe it is drawing them into the mystery of God even if they don’t necessarily, intentionally start that way.”

Camino for Good began taking applications for grants from albergue owners last summer. Austin says those in the group initially thought they’d be helping the albergues get through spring.

The app allows hikers everywhere to walk the trail virtually while raising money for the albergues.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“Now what we’re hearing is that a lot of these folks are now thinking more September time frame before it will hopefully open up,” he adds. “They’re such an interesting group of people because they’ve obviously dedicated their lives … it really kind of hits home how hard it is, how really hard it is. And it’s not only a business, in most cases it’s their family home, it’s everything.”

A key part of the Camino for Good identity is the “for-benefit corporation” format the group embraced in its Tennessee filing last summer.

Gilfillan says this enables the company to essentially put its mission first rather than focusing on profits for stockholders.

“That’s what attracted me to it,” she says. Austin says the founders looked at different scenarios, including nonprofit, which was ruled out because it would put onerous limits on how the grants could be received.

“The last thing as a corporation we wanted was to be hamstrung by was our ability to give, because that’s why we’re doing it,” he continues.

While fairly new in Tennessee, it is perhaps better known through companies such as Patagonia, which achieved “for-benefit corporation” status in 2012 when it first became possible in its home state of California. Patagonia, with its environmental mission entwined with selling outdoor attire, calls the benefit corporation movement “one of the most important of our lifetime.”

Business as a force for the common good resonates with Austin’s 24-year-old daughter, Shaylyn Austin, who had offered to invest seed money into Camino for Good when it first was being discussed and was invited to be a co-founder.

“I think, definitely my generation, very few people are looking to start a company that doesn’t have a social and environmental bottom line, in addition to the economic bottom line,” she notes. “I think it’s important to us that we’re not just making a profit to make a profit. We want a mixture that we’re being responsible and giving as much as we’re receiving in the process.”

Shaylyn walked from Lausanne, Switzerland, to Rome on the Via Francigena route in 2019. She has been involved in conservation-focused research activities in Indonesia, Panama and the United States. This fall, she will begin her master of forestry studies at Yale’s School of Environment. In the meantime, her youthful perspective and energy has helped drive Camino for Good’s social media formation.

Being on social media each day, she’s had a front-row seat to a surprising development that none of the founders expected: a growing sense of Camino community among virtual hikers.

“I’m amazed by how much people are taking the idea of the pilgrimage to heart and expressing such profound transformations through their journeys,” Shaylyn says. “While it may be a virtual Camino, the walking is real, and the effect that intentional, consistent walking can have on a person, even just in their own neighborhood, is incredible.”

Gilfillan, who was a Camino pilgrim in 2018, says Camino for Good ended up taking its Facebook group to a private setting because the stories being shared by its hundreds of members became deeply personal.

“We did the March to Santiago (campaign), our tagline was ‘hope and healing’ … and we just didn’t realize the impact we were going to have on virtual hikers,” she says.

“It is changing people’s lives,” she adds. “They’re coming out of COVID, they’re coming out of loss, they’re coming out of a desert and getting outside and remembering what life is all about…People who’ve lost so much during the last year and a half and they’re hopeful again. It’s beautiful!”

Lindsay Teychenne, another of the group’s founders, is an IT consultant and database developer in Australia who walked the Camino twice in 2018. He helps facilitate the Facebook group and serves as a spiritual guide.

Fabio Elia and his wife, Veronica, joined Camino for Good later as partners after learning about the group’s goals in helping the albergues, Bill Austin says. The couple own F1v, a software development and design firm, and have had a key role in developing the app’s presence.

In addition to the virtual pilgrimage, the Camino for Good founders say they have formed a virtual family through their work on the project, which has included meeting by Zoom twice a week.

“To be honest, I’ve spent more time in the last year with these six people than I have with anyone else in my life,” Bill Austin acknowledges. “For me this year, what I think I’ve given this project, it has given me back so much more, so much more, and I never expected that.”