Climbing Kilimanjaro for UNC relief work

Late last month, 15 people boarded a plane and embarked on a 12-day journey to climb Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, one of the largest volcanoes in the world. They trained for months and set a $250,000 fundraising goal for the African Long Climb, with a large portion of the funds earmarked for the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Disease (IGHID) – even though most of the climbers have no direct tie to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“As a team, we considered several charitable organizations, voted and arrived at IGHID primarily based on its history and commitment to women’s health, clean water, HIV treatment and burn care in Africa,” said Andy Ballou of Chappaqua, N.Y.

Eugene Flood, who lives in Chapel Hill, serves as an adviser to the institute and is the only climber with a direct connection to IGHID, added: “We all went to different schools and want to support our schools, but what has captured our attention is the institute’s commitment to public service. We’re joining them to be a public service for the world.”

IGHID was established in 2007 with flagship programs in Malawi, China, Nicaragua and Guatemala, and has since expanded its projects and impact around the world. The backbone of the institute has always been in the areas of HIV/AIDS, but it also has focused its efforts on securing clean water, obstetric care and burn treatment.

The climb team consists of six parent-child pairs and three of their friends and colleagues from across the United States and United Kingdom. The idea for the climb originated in the spring of 2012, but the group didn’t start talking about fundraising for the institute until September 2013 – after Flood took his friend Scott Krase and Scott’s son Jackson to a UNC football game.

The trio sat beside IGHID Director Myron Cohen, M.D., whose groundbreaking research in 2012 showed that HIV positive individuals receiving treatment become virtually non-contagious. Instead of talking about defensive schemes, quarterbacks and big plays, the Krases spent the majority of the game talking with Cohen about the institute’s work.

“When we left the game, we were both blown away,” Krase said. “We were sold on the institute from that day on.”

So sold, they quickly began pursuing the institute as a main recipient of the climb’s charitable element.

They also went into full physical training mode.

“In addition to hiking and cross training, many of us are training with Hypoxico altitude training systems,” said Ballou, whose son Mikey is also making the climb along with fellow high school seniors Jackson Krase and Jared Winoker of Chappaqua, N.Y. “Basically, some of us are wearing altitude masks while training on stationary bikes and treadmills, or just sitting quietly. Others are sleeping in Hypoxico tents.”

As of July 1, the climbers had raised $113,000, primarily through donations on the team’s crowdrise page. Roughly $56,000 so far has been designated for IGHID programs like those in Malawi that treat more than 900 burn victims every year, and the IGHID Cervical Cancer Prevention Program in Zambia that has screened more than 140,000 women for cervical cancer.

“I hope this trip encourages the UNC and IGHID community and faculty and alums to see these non-UNC and non-IGHID people picking up an oar and rowing with the institute’s mission,” Flood said.

Throughout the climb, the team plans to stay in contact with the IGHID, and the institute will post photos from the mountain, climber profiles and other continued details about the project. The team has established a Facebook page and fundraising site to receive donations, and to keep people updated during the 12-day excursion, which is scheduled to end on Thursday (July 10).

“We are thrilled that our work at UNC has inspired such a unique commitment from such an accomplished group,’’ said Cohen, IGHID’s director. “We are going to follow their journey moment to moment, as will much of the campus.”

Flood, whose son is also climbing with him, said he hopes the project acts as an inspiration for the global public health community.

“I am excited, and I fully expect that this activity will be an inspiration not only for the institute, but with the other great teams across the country who are working on these projects,” he said. “I hope it inspires people and encourages people to continue working in global health.

“It’s a great jumping off point for conversation, and it’s a lively way to spread the story of the institute.”

By Zach Freshwater, UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Disease

Published July 9, 2014