One of this year’s boldest efforts to combat homelessness in New Haven took place about 7,700 miles away from and 19,321 feet above the city’s streets, on the peak of the world’s tallest freestanding mountain.
Three Yalies and a Sarah Lawrence College student ascended Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro in Climb for a Cause, a winter break fund-raising initiative affiliated with the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project. Besides raising $12,000 for charities in the United States and Africa, the students spent time visiting schoolchildren in two Kenyan slums.
Andrew Towne ’05 organized the project after spending his junior year abroad studying and volunteering in Nairobi, Kenya. When he returned, he joined YHHAP and decided that Kilimanjaro represented a significant fund-raising opportunity.
“This seemed like the perfect bridge not only to do something exciting, but also to help the homeless in two corners of the world,” said Towne, who is a former treasurer of YHHAP.
The students spent four days climbing Mt. Kenya, the second-tallest mountain in Africa, in order to acclimate themselves to high altitudes. Afterward, with the help of a team of guides, they spent six days on Mt. Kilimanjaro. Though Towne said that Kilimanjaro is a relatively easy ascent, requiring no previous climbing experience, the altitude posed a challenge to the students.
“It was probably the most challenging physical and mental thing that I’ve ever had to do,” Sarah Lawrence junior Dana Frasz said. Kaitlyn Trigger ’06 said she had to turn back before reaching the summit due to food or water poisoning.
The students also spent three days on a safari and three more days touring two Nairobi slums. They visited schools run by Watoto wa Lwanga, a private program that educates and rehabilitates children in the slums. The students donated half of the $12,000 they raised to Watoto wa Lwanga and gave the remaining $6,000 to YHHAP.
The students said they were appalled by the level of poverty they encountered while visiting the schools. When they arrived in Kibera, which is the second-largest slum in the Africa, the headmaster announced that a sixth-grade girl who had been raped had died in a backyard abortion the day before. Nevertheless, Towne said that the schoolchildren were excited to meet the visitors.
“One after another they offered us their last cupcake and Coca-Cola. The whole room was electric with real gratitude,” he said. “The slums left as great or even greater an impression on all of us than the mountains.”
Frasz said that the level of poverty in the slums was partly illustrated by the children’s equipment — they used plastic bags wrapped in rubber bands for a soccer ball and had to throw plastic bottles through their basketball hoop. She also said that she was confronted by a gang of children apparently high on glue who stole a bag of bananas that she had planned to distribute to them.
Towne said that the $6,000 could pay all of the school’s teacher salaries for at least one year.
“The money we gave to Watoto wa Lwanga meant a lot more than what we gave here,” said Diana Swett ’05.
The students, some of whom have experience with homelessness issues in New Haven, said that they were shocked to find that the situation in Kenya is far worse.
“I definitely think it’s more of a day-to-day struggle for people there to get food,” Frasz said. “I think that we’re spoiled in America. Yes, we have problems, but the facts that our homeless population has three meals a day and have a heated place to sleep is impressive. I think the homeless situation is much more pressing in Africa.”
The students felt that a 50-50 split in the donations was appropriate given the need to support their own community in New Haven.
Each student was required to raise at least $5,000 last summer, about half of which paid for the trip’s expenses. The four students who ultimately participated raised the money by appealing to friends, extended family, businesses and, in some cases, paying out of their own pockets.
The number of people expected to go to Africa originally numbered 25 in the spring but sharply decreased because of the fund-raising requirement. The four students who ended up going on the trip said that though they had expected to raise more money with more people, their small group provided greater intimacy and flexibility. The small size of the group also allowed them to stay with a host family, which would not have been possible with a larger group.
For Trigger, the highlight of the trip was Christmas Eve, when they encountered several Masai warriors in traditional dress drinking at a bar and listening to reggae music.
“I taught them some swing, and they showed me some Masai moves,” Trigger said. “It was a great cultural exchange.”