One step at a time – that's how a group of 20 staff, clients and family members of the Lo-Se-Ca Foundation plan to approach the nearly 5,900-m high climb up Mount Kilimanjaro next month.
"It seems to be a popular thing to do," mused Marie Renaud, the executive director of the organization that offers residential and day program supports to local adults with developmental disabilities. "It's like climbing a massive barrier."
In recent years, it has become the site of numerous triumphs over physical adversity or psychological barriers as well as accomplishments for social causes.
She said that she and the others have been training for a year and a half to prepare for the hike. They have gone to the gym and taken trips to Jasper to not only practise on steep inclines but also to gain exposure to altitude to help their bodies acclimatize.
Her group includes six of the organization's clients plus some of their family members.
Andrew McKerlie is one of the team. He's excited to get going and said that the training isn't too bad.
"It's not too hard. I ride the bike. I go to Servus Place. I walk on the treadmill for half an hour. I climbed a mountain in Jasper."
The adventure will be equal measures human triumph and humanitarianism. It's called the Rafiki Project, named after the Kiswahili word for 'friendship'.
Three years ago, Lo-Se-Ca staff member Pie Buzubona spent his summer vacation in Africa. After having spent part of his life as a refugee during the civil war in Burundi, it was important for him to return to his home continent. He ended up going to Rwanda, Congo, Kenya and then Kigoma, Tanzania where he introduced himself to a group called the Brothers of Charity, a Belgium-based religious order that was running a refugee camp. It has projects on the go in almost 30 countries.
He connected with one of its leaders, Brother Stan Goetschalckx who recently won an Opus Prize for Humanitarian Social Innovation for helping 26,000 refugees finish their high school education through the AHADI International Institute that he founded. He is in St. Albert this weekend to visit with Renaud and other representatives of Lo-Se-Ca.
"Brother Stan was working in Tanzania and he had a home [called Maendeleo Youth Centre] for street kids. One of the things he saw was street kids with disabilities," she said, adding that the facility was over capacity. "They were even getting picked on in this home so he opened up another home called Sheltered Home Bangwe."
At the volunteer-run facility, many children and youth with disabilities are provided with food, medical care, emotional support and education in a place where, Renaud says, they are otherwise considered to be "useless creatures."
Buzubona later returned to volunteer at the centre and upon his return to St. Albert, his stories and his videos convinced everyone else to help out as well.
"They were really struggling so we decided that we wanted to do something."
The Rafiki Project is a partnership between Lo-Se-Ca and the Brothers of Charity. Its brochure states that 90 per cent of children with disabilities in Africa will die before they turn five.
The group leaves on March 4 for the journey of a lifetime. After they complete their trek up to Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the mountain, they will come down and travel to stay at Bangwe House to volunteer for one week. During that time, they will complete several construction projects including a farm, share knowledge and help with programming with the centre's organizers and workers.
While they're there, they will be posting daily updates to a blog with photos to family and friends back here in St. Albert. Anyone can check it out and keep up with their trek and their work at rafiki2013.wordpress.com.
Their goal is to raise $1 for each vertical foot of the mountain for a total of $19,300 – enough to sustain Bangwe's programming costs for a full three years.
"We've harassed everyone we know for money," Renaud joked.
Their total to date is an astounding $115,000 including the $19,300 plus another $15,000 for construction costs. That will also help pay for the team's flights and other expenses.
The Lo-Se-Ca crew is also collecting equipment and various goods like medical supplies to take as well. Renaud added that they're bringing Nintendo Wii consoles and games plus a TV.
"One of the things Pie promised them was a video game. They've never played one!"
They're still hoping that this community can help them to amass other items including school and craft supplies, soccer balls, children's board games, flash cards, dolls, plus socks, underwear, and size 6-14 bathing suits for boys and girls. People can call Lo-Se-Ca at 780-460-1400 or visit www.loseca.ca.