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Karen Carrington in the playroom for children at the Yodak Cardio Thoracic Hospital. The US citizen is hoping to raise 240,000 yuan from her walks this year. PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Karen Carrington, the head of nonprofit organization Heart to Heart, intends to walk from Shanghai to Suzhou and back this year as part of efforts to raise funds for children with heart problems

Karen Carrington might have retired from her job in the technology sector 11 years ago, but she still works 85 hours per week.

And she doesn"t even get to take the weekends off.

Ironically, the 65-year-old"s job as the executive director of nonprofit organization Heart to Heart (H2H) Shanghai can be considered more physically exhausting than the one she had before retirement. After all, she spends several hours every day walking outdoors — and it"s all for a good cause.

Since eight years ago, the US citizen has been embarking on walks that span thousands of kilometers as part of efforts to raise funds for H2H. Among her past exploits are the Gobi Desert, the Pyrenees mountain range in Spain and the gruelling Manaslu Circuit in Nepal. Her maiden walk in 2010 was in Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. The trip raised a grand total of 300 yuan ($44).

"The amount raised was pathetic!" laughed Carrington. "I don"t think people actually believed that I could complete the journey. But the amount has been growing. Last year, I raised 240,000 yuan."

Established in 2003 as a hospital play group within the Shanghai Chest Hospital, H2H falls under the Ren De Foundation and provides aid for Chinese children with congenital heart problems who come from impoverished families. According to Carrington, each child receives 30,000 yuan that goes toward defraying the costs of surgical procedures. H2H sponsors about 130 surgeries every year, most of which are complex open heart operations.

This year, Carrington is aiming to walk a staggering 4,450 kilometers for charity. She has already completed half that distance through earlier walks in the Mara Naboisho Conservancy in Kenya, in Cotswold Way in England, and around Shanghai.

The next trip she has planned for this year would be from Shanghai to Suzhou and back, which she estimates should measure about 200 km.

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Carrington was raised by a neurosurgeon father who had always advocated the importance of paying it forward. But despite his profession, the Carrington household lived a humble life on their farm property in the southeastern US state of Georgia.

"We didn"t grow up like the other kids whose parents were brain surgeons. You see, my father would perform operations for poor people, and sometimes payment was nothing more than a basket of peaches, or a cat. And he hated cats!" she quipped.

"He just thought that is how society should work, that we should always help those who have no means to help themselves. He would sometimes make me play chess or cards with his terminally ill patients so that they would have some company."

While she initially intended to study medicine and follow her father"s footsteps, Carrington eventually picked Asian Studies in university which included classes on Chinese language, Chinese history and Chinese art. This knowledge finally became useful when she was posted to Beijing in 2000 to help set up an office for the electronic payment processing company she worked at.

She arrived in Shanghai the next year after the company decided to establish a presence here instead, and has since never left China. A self-confessed workaholic, Carrington knew she could not "go from working 100 hours a week to suddenly doing nothing in life". Charity work, she thought, was the perfect way to spend her retirement days.

While organizations such as Doctors Without Borders came calling, she decided that she wanted to remain in China. She soon found H2H.

Her job at H2H is also more emotionally challenging — Carrington claims to have shed a million tears during the course of her current career. Some of these tears are shed in sadness, when learning of the death of some children, or the tragic circumstances some families face.

She points out that H2H has a fund that helps provide the parents with food during their stay in Shanghai because most of them have not a cent left to their names after paying for their child"s surgery.

Other tears are shed because of pure joy, when seeing the children they have helped grow up to become healthy individuals with good jobs and loving spouses.

There are moments of laughter, too. Carrington recalls how a grateful family once gifted her live chickens. On another occasion, she was given a sack containing hundreds of eggs.

"In my previous job, I got to see the world. I got to make lots of money. But there was no fulfilment," she said.

"Now, I feel much better about everything because I"m helping people and I can see for myself how I have positively influenced the lives of others. When we go visit the kids after their operations, we can see how their lives have changed for the better, and that"s the best part of this job," she added.

Despite her busy schedule during the day, Carrington wakes every morning at 5 am and takes long walks throughout the city. She then returns home and begins working on H2H matters before walking from her home in Xujiahui to her workspace in the not-for-profit Yodak Cardio Thoracic Hospital on Longcao Road. When she has the time, she takes more long walks in the afternoons and evenings. When the weather is more forgiving in autumn, she would even walk from home to Pudong and back.

"All this walking is not easy. But the hardest part is raising the money. I want to raise 240,000 yuan again this year to sponsor eight more kids for surgery," she said.

Carrington is already thinking about where she can walk next year.

"Many of the kids we have helped are now eager to go to school, to college, and become doctors someday. The fact that they even get to aim for these things in life — that"s only possible because of what we did," she said.

"So as long as people donate money to H2H for me to walk, and I am able to move my legs, I won"t stop doing this."

Contact the writer at [email protected]