This 78-year-old walks 2.2 miles every day for undocumented immigrants and their families

“I’ll walk until the day comes that I’m physically unable to walk.”

Alan Dornan.
–Courtesy of Alan Dornan

Alan Dornan is in pain all the time.

The 78-year-old resident of Wethersfield, Connecticut, has scoliosis and spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spaces within the spine that can place pressure on the nerves and cause muscle weakness and pain.

But every day, Dornan braves the elements and the physical discomforts he experiences to walk 2.2 miles, holding a sign to advertise his purpose to passersby: “I WALK for DREAMers and all IMMIGRANTS.”

He started on January 25, and he hasn’t missed a day since.

“I have never felt more peaceful,” Dornan told Boston.com on what was his 170th consecutive day of walking. “You read about people when they get old looking back and saying,’What did I do in my life? What purpose did it serve?’ And here I am at 78, hell, I didn’t do a lot in my life, and all of sudden my life has taken on this huge meaning. So that when I die, I can look back at my life and say, ‘I did something of value in this life’ because I believe this is a huge, huge issue. And that these people are being persecuted every day.”

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He said he got the idea to walk in January when he was watching budget proceedings in the Senate, which included negotiations over protections and pathways to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers.”  

Dornan said he watched coverage of the back-and-forth for about three weeks, becoming more and more frustrated as bills that were introduced failed to become law.

“Then on Jan. 25, which is ‘D-Day’ for me, something snapped in my head,” he said. “I literally heard a voice inside of me — whether it was God or my conscience — but that voice said to me, ‘It’s time for you to step up. You’ve seen injustice in the past, you’ve had the opportunity to help, and you never really helped. It’s late, you don’t have a lot of time left, and you need to step across the line.’”

At first, Dornan said he tried to walk five miles.

But when he fell down while attempting the distance, he realized it would be impossible.

So instead he settled on walking up and down his own street each morning, a distance of 2.2 miles (he measured). He joined Twitter and Facebook to keep a daily record of his walks and invite others to join him.

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The response to him being on the street each morning has largely been positive, he said. He sees his neighbors out and about, and he’s gotten to know all of the dogs, out for walks, in the neighborhood.

“I’ve had a few — not a lot of negative I’m happy to say — but some negative responses,” he said. “Somebody asked me, ‘Why didn’t you go to North Korea?’ I’m not quite sure what that had to do with anything. But for the most part I’ve gotten mild responses or I’ve gotten a few decent horns. I call them my ‘little gold nuggets,’ when someone beeps the horn. It inspires me to walk on.”

Dornan moved to Connecticut 48 years ago for work, but he grew up in Somerville, Massachusetts.

His parents were immigrants who came to the U.S. legally from Canada and Scotland, so he said he knows what it is like to have parents who have come to a country looking for a better life for their children — and what it’s like to have achieved that life and dream for your family.

“My time has passed,” he said. “Now my life is to give these people the opportunity to realize their dreams. I know what that felt like.”

The pain he experiences has gotten worse with the walking, he said, but his resolve has only strengthened since January.

“I started out angry,” he said. “I’m beyond anger now. I’m just committed to doing whatever I can for these people.”

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What started specifically as a daily walk for Dreamers has broadened.

“Now I walk for all the DACA Dreamers, all the Dreamers, all the immigrants in America, all the people at our borders, all the parents and children who are being separated from one another that they should have a free place — not put together in cages or in prisons — but together on the soil of this free Earth,” he said. “So that’s what I walk for now, and I’ll walk until the day comes that I’m physically unable to walk.”

When he is away from home, he walks wherever he is visiting — still careful to share his route the night before on his social media accounts so others can join him.

But even with all the miles he’s logged, Dornan said he knows his efforts haven’t made “a dent in Washington.”

So he has three other goals.

One is to work with the Archdiocese of Hartford to organize educational meetings on immigration and immigration policies in various church communities.

He also plans to share instructions for registering to vote on his social media pages.

“I’m not telling people how to vote,” he said. “I’m just saying vote. It is a right that you have, and it is a vote that these immigrants don’t have.”

But Dornan said his dream is to participate in a walk in Washington, D.C., with civil rights leader, Congressman John Lewis

Over the last five months or so Dornan said as he’s gained thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook, he’s connected directly with young people who are themselves undocumented or have relatives that have been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The stories that have been shared with him have only firmed his resolve to keep walking, he said.

“There’s no turning back for me now,” Dornan said. “They’ve placed an obligation on my shoulders to do whatever I can for them, because they’re in fear all the time. They say they fear that ICE agents are going to come pick them up — parents fear for their children to leave the house. These are the messages I get. And I’m stuck now. There’s no turning back. I cannot turn back on these people.”

The emotional support that has poured in online has also kept him going.

That, and a mantra he repeats to himself from Star Wars: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

It’s a motto that Dornan’s son, Aaron Joseph, took up when he struggled in school and was known for repeating.

“He was a good boy,” Dornan said. “He was a good young man. And I know that he’d be proud of me, I’m positive of that.”

Aaron died in a car accident just 12 days after he graduated high school, 20 years ago this June.

“When I started walking, that motto became so meaningful to me,” Dornan said. “There is no try. I’m not trying to do something. It’s a matter of do it or don’t do it. And the answer is: I do. ‘Do. Or do not. There is no try.’ I do. I will never, never stop working. I don’t want to use the word try. When you look back, in the past, you can say, ‘I tried.’ But never looking forward do I say I’m going to try. I say, ‘I’m going to do and do and do.’ And it’s what I do that’s made this work.”