Back in 2016, Jillian Michaels attended a documentary screening that changed her life. While she initially went to show support for a fitness client who worked on the short film Refugee, she felt “shattered” once she learned about the refugee crisis happening across five continents.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Michaels, 45, tells PEOPLE. “There was a woman in this documentary who was sick, and she traveled on foot to escape her country and died. Her death was totally preventable, and I was thinking that I would never have the strength to do what she did.”
The former Biggest Loser trainer immediately went to the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) — the arm of the United Nations that helps refugees — to ask what she could do.
“I said, ‘How can I help? And don’t just give me a social media PSA. Give me something real where I can feel like I’m doing something,’ ” she recalls.
It took several years to come up with a plan, but Michaels, now an ambassador for UNHCR, went on a self-funded mission trip in March to meet with South Sudanese refugees in the Congo.
“I spent three days and three nights in a refugee settlement there, and I got to see what they’re doing on the ground and where the money is going and what the crisis is like, at least in that region, because it’s a huge issue,” she says. “That’s where I really had the opportunity to dig in.”
Michaels learned that the Congo needs $220 million to help more than 95,700 Sudanese refugees now living in the country, but so far they have just 9 percent of the money.
“They need money — it’s that simple,” she says. “It’s a huge problem — it’s life or death everyday there for the basic necessities of food, clean water, mosquito nets, education. I saw a health clinic with six nurses serving a 10,000-population community that spans miles. A woman had a baby on the side of the road, and there’s no ambulance. They don’t even have bicycles to take the crops they grow into town. It’s truly the basic fundamentals, and the UNHCR has the knowledge, but they’re underfunded. I came home and said that this is what I wanted to focus on — raising funds, because that’s what’s desperately needed.”
Michaels was already encouraging people to donate money on her social platforms, but she wanted to get more involved in a way that fit with her background as a trainer. So in conjunction with the UNHCR, she decided to start the Step with Jillian program. Starting today, she will walk 100 miles during the month of July to raise funds specifically for the Sudanese refugees.
People all over the world can sign up to raise money and walk the 100 miles like Michaels, or they can walk whatever distance works for them. Ideally, Michaels hopes each person can raise at least $100, which covers the cost of three emergency rescue kits with a towel, thermal blanket, bottled water, energy bar, dry clothing and shoes. But since every little bit helps, Michaels will give free access to her app for the month to anyone who pledges at least $15.
“Refugees end up having to walk millions of miles every year to get to safety,” she explains. “The refugees that I met that were coming in from South Sudan had spent a week on foot walking through the African wilderness and risking horrible death along the way. The idea is raising awareness by walking with them in solidarity.”
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