VMI Graduate Going the Extra Mile in Support of Habitat for Humanity Peninsula & Greater Williamsburg
Justin Chetney is preparing to embark on a journey that will change his life as well as the lives of two local families.
The Hampton native and VMI graduate will board a train for Georgia on Feb. 28. Two days later, just he and his backpack will head north, from Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin, Maine.
That’s where the Appalachian Trail begins and ends and, by the time he’s finished, Chetney will have walked more than 2,200 miles, with a goal of raising $250,000 to benefit Habitat for Humanity Peninsula and Greater Williamsburg. That’s enough to support construction of a pair of Habitat homes that will be sold to two qualified families through the nonprofit’s first-time Homebuyer Program.
Daunting? Indeed, Chetney agrees, but doable and a dream of his that dates back to his 16th birthday during a family vacation at Luray Caverns. At that time, the idea sounded pretty neat, but life kept moving along, and he never found the time for it. The offensive tackle for Phoebus’ first-ever football state championships in 2001 and 2002 earned a scholarship to play at VMI, where he graduated a history major. Chetney worked multiple jobs in retail management, married and moved to Alaska only to divorce and return to Virginia.
Attending a friend’s wake in October 2021 reminded him of how many turns we get around the Earth.
“That would be one,” he says. His friend had died of a heart attack at age 38, a jolt that awakened him. A string of Facebook memories popping up on his timeline also reminded him of who he used to be — a nature lover who favored the outdoors and simplicity.
“I was denying myself from living these dreams, chasing after something that’s not paying me what I’m putting into it,” he says. “The ROI on just working 60-hour weeks really wasn’t refilling my soul. I felt like I needed to go back into nature and rebirth myself, connect with nature and remember who I was as a younger man.”
A friend further inspired him by asking, “What is something you always wanted to do?”
Without hesitation, Chetney returned to his intent to hike the Appalachian Trail. Yet undertaking that kind of journey just for himself didn’t make sense. A colleague suggested he add a charitable element. Chetney didn’t have to think long about the benefactor.
As a cadet at VMI, he worked with the Habitat affiliate in Rockbridge County and served as a liaison recruiting fellow classmates. Years later, during a period of unemployment in Fredericksburg, he volunteered at a Habitat construction site three days a week.
“I even brought a couple of first dates there to work on a house,” he says.
Contacting Habitat for Humanity Peninsula and Greater Williamsburg, he initially spoke to LaToya Tyler, the affiliate’s Chief Operating Officer, who asked what resources he would need from them should they partner together. “I don’t need you to give me anything,” he responded.
“This is about me giving back to my community,” he says.
Chetney is spending the next few weeks gearing up for what will consume most of his 2023. His vacuum sealer that will allow him to dehydrate food recently arrived in the mail. He found the perfect hammock suited for his frame that he admits is atypical for a hiker. Chetney is 6-foot-5 and nearly 330 pounds – too large for a typical sleeping bag. He’s preparing for the rugged spots — the 544 miles in Virginia where he’ll have to weather multiple elevation changes, the jagged stone paths in Pennsylvania and the elevation in New England, when vertical climbing will test him.
Chetney anticipates the trek spanning four to six months, the same time that it takes to build a 1,200 square foot Habitat home. He plans to stay in contact with a buddy, who will upload updates onto a YouTube channel. While he will prioritize disconnecting, he will travel with an iPod mini with songs from 2007 in addition to a GoPro. Donors, friends and the general public will be able to keep up with his progress in real time via a GPS tracking service.
Fundraising will start on Feb. 15, when a former VMI classmate who owns Coastal Fermentory will host a sendoff. Flame and Pie, a food truck, will be on site; both businesses are donating 10% of sales proceeds to Chetney’s Habitat fundraiser.
Chetney will hit the trail on March 2, on foot for 2,198.4 miles. He’ll log more miles for occasional overnight trips in hostels and to replenish his supplies. “I have a massive amount of joy in knowing that’s what my life is about to be,” he says. “I’m even more excited about being able to give back to my local community through Habitat.”
To support Chetney on behalf of Habitat, please visit justgiving.com/campaign/hikeforhabitat.