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Local couple joins inaugural hike for Make-A-Wish
Trailblaze Challenge in Clayton first in state
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Brett Downing, 27, and wife Haley, 30, hike the Rabun Bald portion of the Bartram Trail with their dogs Ace and Mavis Jan. 26, 2018. - photo by For the Dawson County News

Hiking comes naturally for some, but hiking 17 miles in a single day is quite the challenge even for the most seasoned hikers. But it’s a challenge local residents Brett and Haley Downing are well prepared for as they embark on the first Trailblaze Challenge for Make-A-Wish Georgia next month.

“It’s one thing to say you’ve hiked but it’s another thing to say you’ve hiked 17 miles in one day for a great cause,” Brett Downing said.

This year, the Georgia chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation has added a grueling 17-mile hike challenge to fundraising efforts to help grant wishes to the 850 "Wish Kids" in the state.

Participants will begin hiking the Bartram Trail in Clayton at 6 a.m. Sept. 15 and aim to complete the hike by 5 p.m.

“The Bartram Trail is a really difficult trail,” Brett said. “Some sections are pretty brutal.”

The Downings, who live on the border of Dawson and Forsyth counties, know all too well the difficulties that come with the Bartram Trail. With rolling hills and numerous switchbacks, it’s a trail they have hiked sections of but never hiked it in its entirety.

The goal of the Trailblaze Challenge is to mimic the difficult journey Wish Kids travel every day and hopes to give the hikers a taste of what it's like to walk in their shoes.

“Hearing these stories of these kids and their families has truly inspired me. They are all so brave and conquer one day at a time, never knowing what the next day brings,” Haley Downing said. “The least I can do is hike these 17.1 miles for them because even that doesn’t give me a taste of what it’s like to be in their shoes.”

The challenge is even greater for Haley, who found out five years ago that she had lupus along with psoriatic arthritis and degenerative disc disease in her back.

Although the couple began hiking seven years ago, Haley began to struggle after her diagnosis and fought through her pain to get back to doing what she loved.

“The idea of doing something like this would have been a joke to me,” Haley said. “Five years ago I would have thought my life was over but I’m mentally stronger now and connecting with Make-A-Wish has helped me with that.”

The most the couple has hiked in a single day was 16 miles on a less strenuous trail than the Bartram, but the Downings plan to push through all the way by encouraging each other to keep going.

Also encouraging them is the Wish Kids they connected with when they signed up for the challenge. As they hike through the rugged north Georgia terrain, the pair will be keeping their sponsored kids close to their hearts.

Brett’s Wish Kid, a little girl with a brain tumor, wished to meet Michelle Obama. Haley’s Wish Kid, a nine-year-old boy with stage three leukemia, wished to go to Montana to see the snow covered mountains.

“Just granting them that one wish can make that difference,” Brett said.

As a team, the Downings have pledged to raise $5,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation and have already exceeded $2,600. They have until the end of October to raise the full $5,000.

The Trailblaze Challenge has already reached over 60 percent of its $100,000 goal.

“This is a great organization and we want to try and do as much as we can to support these kids. They deserve at least that much from the community,” Brett said.

For more information on Make-A-Wish Georgia and the Trailblaze Challenge please visit help the Downings reach their $5,000 goal visit their fundraising page here.