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Valrico boy nears the end of his cross country walk

Zach Bonner is at it again.

While most kids his age are reveling in the last few weeks of summer vacation, Zach is trudging across the Arizona desert — wearing out his shoes and his tiny body in the name of charity.

The 12-year-old Valrico boy known for collecting money for local homeless children has garnered national attention for his most recent fundraiser: a roughly 2,500-mile walk from Tampa to Los Angeles. He started on Christmas Day.

"I would first of all like to say thank you to everybody for the support over the last few months," Zach said Wednesday over the phone from Phoenix, cars whooshing by in the background.

He apologized for his hoarse voice. He's coming down with a chest cold, he said.

But that didn't stop the interview.

"One of the points of the walk is to bring awareness to homeless children, but also to encourage other kids to get involved in their community. I guess that would be the thing that I would like kids to realize," Zach said.

If his sound bites sound practiced, it's because they are. Zach started his tax-exempt Little Red Wagon Foundation Inc. when he was 6 years old.

After Hurricane Charley hit in 2004, Zach hauled his red Radio Flyer wagon through his neighborhood collecting food for needy families. That morphed into a foundation that funneled donations to all kinds of operations that help distressed kids.

For his part, Zach walks. In 2007 he walked 230 miles to Tallahassee. The next year he trekked about 1,200 miles to Washington, D.C.

Along the road, he collects monetary pledges and visits organizations that fit his creed.

He's earned lots of accolades, including a handshake and service award from President George W. Bush in 2006 and Beliefnet's award for the most inspirational person of the year in 2009.

Most recently, Hollywood producers bought the rights to his life story and this summer started shooting a feature film, directed by David Anspaugh of Hoosiers and produced by the Philanthropy Project, the New York Times reported Wednesday.

His mother wouldn't say how much Zach, who takes online school classes, was paid, but she said he gave it all to the Little Red Wagon Foundation.

The foundation, which raised more than $50,000 last year, has collected more than double that this year — $120,000 so far in pledges of cash or in-kind donations, Zach's mother told the New York Times. That includes a $50,000 pledge from Elton John if Zach makes it to Los Angeles.

As Zach marches along, his mother and a family friend take turns walking beside him while the other follows in a Volks­wagen Beetle with a red wagon affixed to the top.

"It's his fun," his mother, Laurie Bonner, said in a telephone interview. "It's a lot of work, but you know, he really enjoys it."

Bonner admits being a little worried about her son's vigorous undertaking. The desert heat is bordering on unbearable, and Zach has lost a lot of weight.

"I prefer not to see his ribs when he takes his shirt off," Bonner said. Still, "He's a good eater. He'll put it back on … as soon as he stops walking 22 miles a day."

Zach planned to log 13 to 15 miles each day, but he's settled into an average 20-mile-a-day trot, Bonner said. Along the trip, he's visited homeless shelters and held special events for homeless children, including taking a group to a Dallas amusement park.

"He's seen and met a lot of neat people," Bonner said of her son. "We've seen the country in a whole different way."

Supporters can follow him via a "Zach tracker" map on zachtracker.com and on Twitter posts, which he writes while on Arizona time:

• ZACH_BONNER, 8:54 PM Jul 26th: "Can I just say it is not always easy to do the right thing."

• ZACH_BONNER, 5 AM Jul 27: "I had to stop walking. I just feel to bad and with the heat it was more than my Mom was willing to tolorate. Try again tomorrow."

• ZACH_BONNER, 12 AM Jul 28: "I met one of the most amazing homeless kids tonight. It made every moment of the past 6 years of my life worth it."

He hopes to hit the California coast by mid September.

Zach said after he hits the coast, he'll head home to start planning his litany of regular holiday charity events: gift give-aways for kids, dinners, parties at local shelters.

And in December, he'll fly to Africa, where he plans to walk across Swaziland.

"It's not a very large country," he said. It's just slightly smaller than New Jersey, according to the U.S. State Department.

But isn't he tired?

"Yeah," he said. "A little bit."

Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or kwilmath@sptimes.com.

Valrico boy nears the end of his cross country walk 07/28/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 29, 2010 7:59am]
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