Kilimanjaro. Africa’s highest mountain. Wishing to raise money for health care and education for the children of Kenya, the sister and brother team of Veronica and Richard Smiley, in partnership with the March to the Top Foundation, climbed Kilimanjaro this past August, raising $25,000 in the process.
This is Part Three in The Bloomsburg Daily’s Four Part series on Bloomsburg natives Ronnie and Rick. This third installment looks at the New Hope Orphanage and the Children that Veronica and Richard were inspired to help.
The Bloomsburg Daily – What images or moments from the non-climb part of your trip stick with you the most?
Veronica Smiley – The trip was truly eye opening for me. I’ve done the usual kinds of vacations the past several years, but was craving something different, something more meaningful. This trip did something I didn’t think was possible. It really immersed me in another world. The kids who are so happy with so little, they have a potentially life threatening disease, yet they are so happy because of the simple stuff: people who love them, safety, food and the chance to run around and be kids. Sounds cliche but it makes you think hard about what really drives happiness, and how much we really need.
I think another thing it did for me is put into perspective all the things that I think are such a big deal in my everyday life (a flight running late, stressful deadline at work, finding the perfect gift for a friend, etc). My friend Barbara [March, of the March Foundation] told me that I should meet the children before I did the climb so I could really be inspired when climbing Kilimanjaro. Well she was totally right. It was the perfect sequence to stay at the orphanage, get to know the caretakers, the farmer, the animal caretakers and of course the kids. I let it all soak in during the 6 days on the mountain. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience or way to spend my vacation.
Richard Smiley – I completely agree with everything Ronnie said, and I would add that what was most memorable for me were the people.
Certainly, the children at the orphanage, but also the volunteers at New Hope orphanage, all from Italy, who contribute so much of their personal time to help keep the orphanage running. Then there’s the local help (housemothers, farmers, maintenance folks), who clearly recognize the special opportunity they have to help these kids.
There were also plenty of experiences along the way, starting with our stay at the orphanage and the simple accommodations they had prepared for us, complete with mosquito netting on the beds. We were in the same housing as the children, and each night as the generator was turned off to conserve fuel you could hear as the building settled into a quiet slumber. Then, throughout the day we were invited to join in with various activities with the children. A couple of memories stand out. One was when I sat cross-legged on the floor and was surrounded by children as I blew up balloons for them. Yes, it was like a mini-mob of sorts, but there were also smiles and laughter and you could not help but be consumed by it.
The other one is when I distributed the gifts I had brought for the children. There were over 70 kids, so I needed to bring something I could fit in along with all my mountain equipment. My kids suggested I bring Silly Bandz. So, in preparation for the trip, my kids pulled out their own Silly Bandz collections and we collected 70 bundles of the bands to bring as gifts.
The kids of New Hope had never seen them before and were so excited when we distributed them. Of course the best part was bringing the photos home to my kids so they could see the result of their efforts, that their toys were now on the wrists of children halfway around the world.
We were also invited to participate in the celebration for the opening of the Esiteti Primary School in Amboseli. Although this is a March to the Top project, the donations for our climb did not go towards this particular effort. Still, Barbara and Roy invited us to come along for the experience, and what an experience it was!
Although the Masai people are very connected to the modern world, a great many of them choose to live their life by their old traditions and practices. They live in mud hut villages surrounded by barriers of thorny bushes. They wear the traditional bright-colored garb and beaded jewelry. They rely on walking as their primary mode of transportation, walking great distances across the vast savannah to reach their destinations. This school opening was considered a monumental event for the Masai, and hundreds of them walked 5-10 miles to join in the festivities. When we arrived, we were greeted by a long line of Masia women on the hillside who were in constant song. Then, we sat down for a four hour celebration of song, dance and speech to commemorate the occasion.
One speaker, an older Masai woman, made an interesting comment in that the Masai people had survived this long through a careful balance and respect for the animals around them, and that this school’s opening was directly attributable to the animals. From the animals comes the tourism, and from the tourism comes the increased visibility of the needs of the Masai people. We needed to leave before the dinner festivities began, so I have no stories of slaughtering my own goat or drinking the ceremonial mixture of milk and warm cow’s blood.
But, one of the funniest moments occurred when a Masai warrior approached Ronnie, introduced himself, and gave an opening line of, “Are you on Facebook?”. I’m sure [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg would be gleaming.
RS – We were extremely happy to have raised over $25,000 from the climb. Because March to the Top covered all of the administrative expenses, the entire amount went towards the New Hope Orphanage. We even got to sit down with the heads of the orphanage to determine the allocation of funds to each of their initiatives.
The money raised was used to pay for one year of medical insurance for each of the 70+ children. In addition, we wanted to use some of it to help one of the children, Nellie, who had had an improper medical procedure prior to arriving at New Hope. This poor girl was left with a hole in the side of her neck, where her saliva would drain out. And the correcting procedure would need to be done at the better facilities in Nairobi. I believe she is preparing now for her operation so she can lead a more normal life.
The remaining funds went towards the new medical facility being built on the grounds. This facility is critical as the orphanage tries to increase its capacity.
TBD – How do you feel now that it is done? What are your future plans related to the charity?
VS – Now the question keeps popping into my head about what’s next. I don’t think it has to be big trips or dramatic fund raising. Barbara March and I were talking recently about ideas to help spread the word with a newsletter, photos, making it easy for anyone to volunteer at their projects, everyone can play some kind of a role. Maybe I waited too long to begin my volunteer efforts, but it’s never too late for anyone to start.
RS – I agree with Ronnie that what we do next doesn’t have to be such a big event to help make a difference. However, I know that a future trip to visit New Hope will come. Only, this time, I’d like to share the experience with the rest of my family.
TBD – Can you relate what you did with how you grew up in Bloomsburg? This was clearly an amazing effort. What gave you the strength to do it?
RS – I think the main point for me here is just that, growing up in a small town in central Pennsylvania I could have never imagined one day having the opportunity to affect the lives of these children on another continent. I think I’d view it the same way my kids do when they see their Silly Bandz, now on the wrists of these children. I know we’ve done a little to help these kids, but they’ve helped me as well.
Founded in 2006, the March to the Top Foundation was established by the March family in order to help the less fortunate in Africa, focusing on improving education and healthcare, specifically with regards to HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis. Veronica Smiley is a member of the March Foundation Advisory Board.