If you’ve spotted a man and young woman riding around town on unicycles, don’t be alarmed: the circus is not invading. The two riders are Larchmont residents Philip Wharton and his daughter Sophie, and they are training for a four-day, 100-mile unicycle trip, which they will embark on this July. Their journey, which they’ve named “A Balancing Act,” is a fundraiser for the Central Asia Institute, CAI, which builds schools in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The project was born after the Whartons read the extraordinary story of Greg Mortenson, founder of CAI, in the book Three Cups of Tea. The organization has built over 80 schools in some of the most dangerous areas of the world, always working closely with local community leaders and putting a special emphasis on educating girls. Importantly the schools, built with the help of CAI, are supported by local religious leaders, but offer a moderate alternative to the religious extremism taught in many of the madrassas. ”This is the real ‘balancing act’,” says Mr. Wharton, a real estate developer, adding his belief that “education is the best way to reduce intolerance and promote peace over the long term.”
Inspired by the Central Asia Institute, the Whartons drew up plans for their adventure. “We believe so strongly in its mission and wanted to help raise awareness and funding, so we decided to do something slightly crazy that would be sure to catch people’s attention,” explained Ms. Wharton, who graduated from Mamaroneck High School in 2007 and is now a rising junior at Harvard University.
Ms. Wharton first learned to unicycle during middle school, while attending a circus summer camp at SUNY Purchase. “I fell in the love with the challenge and simplicity of it,” she said, and her father caught the unicycle bug too when she taught him to ride last summer. After a few long rides together, they decided that 100 miles, though ambitious, was a reachable goal if they set their minds to it.
The unicycling duo explored many different locations for their journey, ultimately choosing Montreal for the trip. “We needed a trail that was paved and relatively flat, but also long enough for us to complete 100 miles without retracing steps,” explained Mr. Wharton. “We discovered that Montreal was a gold mine of beautiful paved trails.” The Whartons have mapped out their routes for the four days, so that they will be unicycling 25 miles each day, which will amount to 5-6 hours of riding (plus breaks for snacks and rest). They will be staying at local inns and carrying everything on their backs, so they plan on packing lightly.
In the weeks remaining before they head north, the Whartons are building endurance on training rides and also focusing on fundraising efforts. They have raised $20,000 for the Central Asia Institute so far, and have been amazed by donors’ generosity, even in hard economic times. Their goal is to raise $50,000, which is enough to build a school in Pakistan or Afghanistan, and support it for 3-5 years.
Mr. Wharton is looking forward to stepping up the fundraising to reach this amount, “So far we’ve reached out mostly to friends and family, but we’re hoping to get the whole community involved.”
Donations are tax deductible and can be made online through their website (www.abalancingact.org) or by sending checks made out to the Central Asia Institute to the Wharton’s home (46 Circle Avenue, Larchmont NY 10538). All the information about contributions, and more details on the trip and the charity, are available on the Balancing Act website.