Runner with a cause: Langley man raising funds for clean water in South Sudan

Arne Bergstrom heads off from his home on his usual running path through the Goss Lake and Lone Lake areas.

Arne Bergstrom has been running to let off steam since 1980, but later this month there is a noble cause that’ll keep his legs chugging… and chugging… and chugging.

Bergstrom, a Langley resident, will take his habitual running across the Washington-Oregon state line to partake in the 35th annual Hood to Coast relay, one of the longest and largest relays in the world. In all, 1,050 twelve-person teams will go at their pace over the course of 18 hours. The course begins early in the morning at Timberline Lodge, Oregon on the slopes of Mount Hood and heads west through the Portland metropolitan area, over the Oregon Coast Range and concludes on the beaches of Seaside, Oregon. A whopping 12,600 runners will compete with their teams during the 199-mile relay.

Bergstrom will compete with a team of runners who work for his former employer, the Christian humanitarian aid organization World Vision, with whom he worked for 22 years. He and Team World Vision aren’t simply running the relay for the challenge — they’ve set the goal of raising $10,000 per runner in the lead up to the relay. World Vision happens to have 10 different teams competing, each with 12 runners. If all the runners meet their fundraising goal, World Vision will raise a total of $1.2 million. Bergstrom says this is World Vision’s largest fundraiser of the year, and all the money raised will go towards a specific and much needed cause.

“I am joining Team World Vision for the Hood to Coast Relay event this August to help raise funds for water for children, families, and communities in South Sudan,” Bergstrom said. “Our family lived in Sudan from 1985 to 1987 as part of the famine response of World Vision. I was on the design team that developed a dry ration feeding program for one million people in the Blue Nile Region of Sudan.”

Competing in the 199-mile relay to raise funds for South Sudan is personal for Bergstrom. He became enamored with the country during his time there as World Vision’s first country director for Sudan, living there for two years.

The newly formed country, which was part of Sudan in the 1980s, has struggled to provide its people with basic needs such as clean water due to what Bergstrom described as years of neglect as part of Sudan. The Southern Sudanese are ethnically different and practice different religions such as Christianity and animism, while the Sudanese culture is more Arabic in nature and Muslim. Bergstrom says now that South Sudan is a country, it’s been playing catch up, and one of the largest problems the country faces is access to clean water.

“Clean water impacts health, agriculture and even education,” Bergstrom said. “Without easy access to drinkable water, kids often don’t go to school because they have to walk for miles to find the day’s water supply.”

The nature of Bergstrom’s work leaves a heavy burden even on the toughest people. Being a first-hand witness to famine and natural disasters requires an outlet to decompress, and in searching for his outlet, he dusted off his running shoes while living in the Philippines. That was in 1980, and he says he’s been habitually pounding pavement ever since as a way to cope with the hardships he’s witnessed, which include the genocide in Rwanda, the refugee response on the Thailand-Cambodia border and Kosovo.

“Arne and his wife are dedicated to helping those in need and offering ministry to children and adults through teaching and music,” said Susan Knickerbocker, who attends services at Trinity Lutheran Church with Bergstrom. “He is quite thoughtful, and volunteers wherever needed, from what I observe.”

Bergstrom says seeing the world through running is a different experience from simply driving through it. Someone driving through East Africa would see a different picture than someone jogging through the region, as Bergstrom can attest to as he had an experience that would make Forrest Gump proud. He says while running there, it would create “a sense of joy” where people would see him and start laughing, as if it was a novelty to see a white man running in the brutal high altitudes of East Africa. He recalls kids who were on their way to school surrounding him on his runs, running alongside him and creating a hubbub in whatever town he was passing through.

“In East African cities, the altitude is really high, and that’s where the fun was,” Bergstrom said. “Kids would start passing me, then old ladies running after the bus would pass me.”

There is plenty to learn from people living in adverse situations, according to Bergstrom. Throughout the years as a first responder in the toughest of situations, Bergstrom realized a sense of community can be crucial to survival, and dependency on others can act as a coping mechanism. He says Americans take it for granted; we are taught to be self-reliant because we have the ability to be independent. But in a hard and often rural life, a sense of community can enhance survival. In helping those in need, they helped teach him to build closer relationships with others. Now he’s doing his bit to return the favor with the fundraiser.

“As a practicing Christian, helping those in need is vital to our beliefs,” Knickerbocker said. “If the unbelieving world doesn’t see the faithful helping others, then what kind of model are we? This is what Arne and his wife believe, and it’s easy to see from how they live.”