Haven of Hope International Founder Alice Skaff encourages kids in orphanages to climb their own personal mountains. In October she set the example in life.
EXECUTIVE: Alice Skaff left a 25-year career in elder care two years ago to devote full-time leadership to Fort Myers-based nonprofit Haven of Hope International. The organization works with more than 40 orphanages in Latin America, South America, Africa and Asia to assist in achieving self-sufficiency while helping provide a path forward to its residents. “We can be the guide to help people get involved, but we can also help orphanages develop a strategic plan," she says. "So many of the orphanage directors are doing all they can just to keep the doors open and put meals on the table. They’re not thinking about sustainability programs, but they are so committed to their kids. That’s where we come in.”
DIVERSION: A self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, Skaff, 54, likes to go fast. In October, she traded speed for the steady pace required to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, a 19,000-foot-high volcanic mountain in Tanzania. The climb was in association with New York City-based Metro World Child Ministries, which raises money to help fund the operations of more than 150 orphanages worldwide under the leadership of its founder, Bill Wilson, whom Skaff calls a “good friend and mentor.”
BIG IDEAS: Skaff had never given climbing Mount Kilimanjaro a first, much less a second thought, until a friend who helps raise funds for Wilson and Metro World Child Ministries brought up the idea. “He was here in January and asked me what I thought about him doing it to raise awareness and funds,” says Skaff. “I had all kinds of ideas for him. Then he said, ‘You know, I think you should do this with us.’”
“As I was climbing and I was having difficulty, I had these kids’ dreams in my head, and I'm thinking that if they can climb out of their environment, then I can keep going. It wasn’t about me. It was about them.”
She saw symmetry between the missions of the two organizations — disadvantaged children with their own mountains to climb — and the challenge dubbed KlimbingforKids. “I do like an adventure, but I've never climbed,” says Skaff. “But I said it would be good for the kids to know the commitment we have. We always teach them to think big and dream bigger. I thought in a lot of ways this was an opportunity to set an example for them and let them know of my commitment to help them see their own dreams come true.”
PREPARATION: Always possessing more of a sprinter’s mentality, Skaff had to prepare for an endurance event. “Yollo Wellness was one of my sponsors, and they helped me change my diet and prepare my body for the climb,” says Skaff. “I got an oxygen deprivation mask to help get my lungs be prepared to acclimate in the limited oxygen there would be. I started exercising using the mask. It was a good challenge and I like challenges.”
A STEADY STRIDE: Starting at about 8,000 feet in altitude, Skaff and her group of 15 climbers began the five-day ascent toward the peak. It takes three days longer to hike up the mountain than it does to descend because a gradual climb is required to allow the body to adapt both to the altitude and the changing climate. The climb, she says, took them through five climate zones, from steamy rainforest to an icy 10 degrees.
“One of the things I learned in training is to keep your pace and to get your breathing down,” says Skaff. “We got on the mountain the first day — I wanted to go much faster and they said I had to slow down. Pacing myself was a discipline I had never learned, so that was a challenge.”
CLIMBING FOR THE KIDS: Although the climb was Oct. 3-9, Skaff arrived in Africa Sept. 26 to visit three orphanages, including one in Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, which she says is the largest slum in Africa. “What I saw was really tough conditions, but what was encouraging was when we would always ask kids what they want to be when they grow up and what they are dreaming of,” says Skaff. “As I was climbing and I was having difficulty, I had these kids’ dreams in my head, and I'm thinking that if they can climb out of their environment, then I can keep going. It wasn’t about me. It was about them.”
FLYING FOR KIDS?: After her return, friends who live in Miramar Lakes held a fundraising celebration, where Skaff shared her story of the climb and talked about the orphanages and children helped by Hope for Haven International. The event raised $90,000 toward Skaff’s $170,000 goal. Through mid-December she had raised $145,000.
So what does she do for an encore in 2019?
“I think it's going to be jumping out of airplanes,” she says. “This way we can get more people involved. I'll jump. This does fall in line with my adventurous spirit.”