Virginia diver Eric Kelley knew he had to help the orphans and poor people in Nicaragua but he never thought walking across the Central American country would be the answer.

Kelley first got involved in the cause by using his spring break last March to do some good. He and fellow UVA students traveled in a campus group formed a few years ago called the Nicaraguan Orphan Fund.

"We got more out of the experience than we could ever give to them," said Kelley. "We took the kids to the beach, to church, to nice restaurants and several other places."

Kelley, who is studying studio art and photography, also took several pictures during his trip with the hopes of putting a book together.

"I wasn't as happy as I was hoping to be with the pictures I got, so when I got back I started thinking what more I could do to help these kids in Nicaragua," said Kelley.

Eric Kelley is training for the NCAA qualifiers but hopes to go back to Nicaragua. (Virginia)
Kelley's friend and fellow UVA student Kyle Boynton suggested that they walk across Nicaragua to help raise awareness and funds for the dire situation.

"I said, 'no, are you crazy?'" said Kelley. "He said it was only 250 miles across the country and had been reading CIA reports about the country, and said it didn't look like it would be that bad to do. Everybody I talked to about it laughed at me when I told them the idea."

Kelley spoke with his parents about the idea, and after their initial reaction of disbelief, they agreed to buy his plane ticket so he could embark on the trek across Nicaragua. He, along with Boynton and Justin Belcher, decided to start the adventure on July 21.

Once they reached Managua " the capital of Nicaragua " the group flew to the Corn Islands, and had a few near-death experiences before they even began their walk.

"We got lost in the jungle and our boat almost capsized," said Kelley. "Once we got walking, we walked for 16 days and it totaled 340 kilometers. We started from a little town called El Rama. We would walk between 20 and 30 kilometers a day (15-20 miles)."

The group started out carrying 50-pound packs with sleeping bags and tents in case they could not find suitable accommodations, but quickly found out that didn't make for an easy walk.

"We made it three days with those packs and in the middle of that day we decided to drive ahead to the next town, find a hostel, and drop our stuff off, and then go back to the place where we started and walk from that spot," said Kelley. "We would just shuttle our packs ahead and get rid of 20 pounds, so it was a little more bearable."

The trip was physically draining between layers of blisters on their feet, the weather, and muscle soreness.

"It was physically trying, but you knew you couldn't stop," said Kelley. "You had to keep going. There would be times when a car wouldn't pass us for hours."

It was also mentally challenging because they were three 'gringos' walking on the major highway, and were never quite sure what they would encounter.

"We didn't run into any problems with people which was an answered prayer, because I didn't know what the people would be like," said Kelley. "They were very open and welcoming to us."

Along with taking photos and learning about the people of Nicaragua, the group wanted to help the orphans in particular. They decided that any funds they raised through their walk would go to opening a feeding center in a refugee camp called "Nueva Vida" (New Life).

"We've risen just over $3,000 and we're teaming up with another group of people who are raising money and we're at about $11,500 right now," said Kelley.

Kelley is entering his senior year at Virginia and will continue working to raise money as a member of the board of the Nicaraguan Orphan Fund. He is also trying to come up with the best way to use photos of his walk, and is hoping to have a show or presentation to raise money for the feeding center.

Kelley, who holds the school record in platform diving with 344.50 points, is also excited to get back in the pool for his last season of competition after nursing an injured wrist for the past year.

"It's going to be a hard season, but I'm going to train my hardest to try to qualify for the meet (NCAA Championship)," said Kelley. "There's also something in me that wants to go back to Nicaragua, but right now diving is the most important thing."

For more information on Kelley's walk across Nicaragua got to www.walkacross.com.