Jefferson Award Winners, September 2017: Mike Byrd & Maggie Felker

MADISON (WKOW) — 15-years ago Mike Byrd and Maggie Felker’s son disappeared in Ecuador. 

While losing him was devastating, it motivated them to help kids a world away.

David Byrd-Felker was a world traveler.

"He was never happier than when he was getting on a plane and going somewhere," says Maggie.

David studied abroad in Hungary, spent a month in Ghana working with kids and at 20 years old while studying at Beloit College, he became an exchange student at a university in Quito, Ecuador.

"He worked with a group called Kids of the Streets," says Mike. "One of the last conversations we had with David by phone, he talked about the work that he had done."

David was passionate about helping others and venturing into the unknown.

"He asked us if he could go exploring in southern Ecuador," says Mike. "We said, yeah. I guess we didn’t know what we were getting into."

That’s where David’s story ends.

Mike and Maggie say in July of 2002, he went into the mountains of a national park and never came out.

"I went to the airport to pick him up on August 12, 2002 and he didn’t get off the plane," says Maggie.

They searched for him, for years.

David’s disappearance, was never solved.

"Closure’s not what we want. What we want is something other than that," says Mike. "What we want is meaning and we work for that."

Mike and Maggie returned to the city David held so dear.

"One way for me to deal with losing David was to teach there," says Mike.

They started teaching kids in Quito in 2004, traveling back and forth from Madison.

"We’ve gotten this large number of really wonderful young people."

They wanted to see those students succeed.

So, in 2012 they started David’s Educational Opportunity Fund, to give students in Quito who couldn’t afford it, a college education.

"We pay tuition, but we also pay a lot of basic costs. We pay for transportation to school, we pay for food at school. If people need apartments, we pay for apartments," says Mike.

Six students have gone on to graduate with degrees and the foundation is now funding tuition for 15 others, about $60,000 a year in total.

And the support continues after graduation.

"We do things so that they can advance their education," says Maggie, "be professionally prepared.

The couple also tutors online from abroad.

Every year they spend a month Quito, carrying on David’s legacy.

"What we think and I think what David would think, is, there is no better investment you can make." 

David’s words live on through his writing Maggie carries in her pocket, documenting his travels.

He wrote, "I, a rich, relatively idle upper-middle class American, have thrown myself down in three locales outside of my normal sphere: Rural Eastern Europe, Urban sub-tropical Africa and the Spanish speaking inner-city of Chicago. I have found welcome and kindness in all three locations, although perhaps I don’t deserve it. Do you think this affirms anything fundamental about humanity?"

Mike and Maggie donate a lot of their own money to the foundation and hold only one small fundraiser a year.



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