Van Kootens participate in 70-mile pilgrimage with the I’ll Push You campaign

by Austin Dart /

Principal Dan Van Kooten and his wife, Andi, spent 11 days in Spain in order to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with the I’ll Push You Foundation. This organization helped disabled people participate in a 70-mile pilgrimage along the Camino, a 500-mile trail across northern Spain. In this group of 48 people, 11 had disabilities, most of which were mobility issues, although one person was blind. The rest of the group helped push and pull those in wheelchairs up and down the multitude of hills on the Camino.

The group stayed in the same hotel in Santiago de Compostela, ate breakfast together every morning and then rode busses out to start each day’s journey on the Camino. Each day, they would walk an average of 13 to 14 miles.

About 3 years ago, the Van Kootens learned about the Camino while watching a presentation by “I’ll Push You” leaders Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray. Skeesuck has a neuromuscular disease that has taken away his mobility. Because he needs help with everything physical, Gray helped him go on the entire 500-mile Camino. “We were pretty awestruck by what they did – it was quite a feat given the challenging terrain of going over the Pyrenees,” said Van Kooten. 

About a year ago, Skeesuck and Gray announced they would lead a trip to the Camino and invited people with and without disabilities to apply to go. With the Van Kootens having school responsibilities, children getting married, and busy lives, they first said no, but after much thought and prayer, they decided to apply and were accepted. 

Although difficult, the trip was well worth it. “We loved every challenging minute of this trip. We are pleased that we accomplished this thing,” said Van Kooten. He and his wife are still in contact with others from the trip via Facebook and WhatsApp.

The Camino has left a lasting impact on the Van Kootens. “The last day was an emotional day for Andi and me, as well as everyone else,” said Van Kooten. “I walked with a lump in my throat some of the day and with tears streaming down my face a few times.” 

On the last night the group was there, they shared a meal together and a few spoke about the trip. “We live in a broken world, but God wants us to help restore it to the way He intended it to be,” said Van Kooten. “The way this group all used their gifts to help one another was a beautiful example of how the body of Christ should function.”

Van Kooten said he’d love to do the whole 500-mile route, but he doesn’t think it will ever happen since it takes about 35 days.  “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us and we are thankful to God that we were able to do the Camino together this one time,” said Van Kooten.

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