Climbing to Greater Heights

Thursday 5.2.2013 @ 8:34pm | ImagesAZ | Inspiration

It’s funny what we can miss in our busy-ness. Some of the most remarkable people can be blended into the faces and places of everyday life. We never know what hidden human treasures we can uncover with a simple smile or hello.


Kevin Cherilla is one of those special people. The former middle school gym teacher has the lean frame of a runner. He wears a baseball cap on top of his head, and the only thing that makes him stand out from the regular morning crowd milling about a local coffee shop is the wide smile he wears below his sunglasses.


Yet Kevin is outstanding. He is one of less than a handful of Arizonans who has scaled Mt. Everest, and his world travels have led him to places most people only read about in story books. From Nepal to Argentina’s Macchu Picchu, he’s seen the world from a bird’s eye view and conquered the impossible.


His greatest accomplishments, though, have not been in altitude, but rather in servitude.


In 2009 he led a team of eight blind children up Tanzania’s legendary Mt. Kilimanjaro. It was a feat no one had ever attempted, and the group’s success gave hope to disabled children across the globe.


That trip launched the K2 Adventure Foundation. Kevin teamed up with business partner Kristen Sandquist, who also came along for the trek despite never having climbed a big mountain or slept in a tent before. Her background was in non-profit management, and between Kevin’s love for adventure and Kristen’s keen non-profit business mind, the two became an unstoppable pair.


K2 Adventure Travel, the for-profit arm of the partnership, is a philanthropic adventure travel company. Whether people want to spend a week in an exotic location or push their limits by bungee jumping, climbing or other adventure sports, Kevin leads travelers on unforgettable journeys. At the same time, they give back through the foundation’s work, spending time building or teaching in some of the most desperate and neglected places on earth.


K2’s combined efforts have brought wheelchairs to handicapped children; canes and Braille writers to children whose blindness is considered a curse in their own villages; built and manned an impressive dental and medical clinic in Tanzania, and given blind and albino children the courage to dream of a purposeful life.


The help does not end overseas. In fact, it’s only a small portion of what the K2 Adventure Foundation does. Throughout the country, Americans – Arizonans included – are struggling with limited benefits for disabilities. Even well-insured people find themselves in coverage nightmares … youngsters who grow out of their wheelchairs and are suffering for months or even years because of insurance restrictions; children with cerebral palsy who are turned down for leg braces by their insurance company because they are considered a “luxury item;” and people with special needs who could benefit from camp experiences where they aren’t considered “different” or somehow lesser.


Last year, here at home, K2 Adventure Foundation provided thousands of dollars in medical equipment – some through a very generous grant by Henry Schein – and sent 30 children to camps for kids with similar abilities and challenges.


The biggest project abroad is a home, school, medical and dental clinic in Tanzania for albino and blind children, as well as children, called “moon kids,” with a deadly and painful rare condition called exoderma pigmentosa.


These children are outcast by their own communities, which often rely on superstition for their medical knowledge and social practices. Of the 11,000 schools in Tanzania, only five are for blind children, and there are no others for albino children, who are also often blind. The school had no running water, very little space and no resources when the group began. K2 changed that.


K2 built a dormitory and provided beds for the children of the school, who were sharing tiny mattresses with two or three other children when K2 became involved. Now each of the 78 children living there has a bed.


They provided clean, running water for the home and school, no small feat in a country where many have no safe water source. Classrooms were built, a computer lab presented, and wheelchairs, canes and other special equipment brought to help the children become more independent. They distributed 2,000 pairs of shoes and socks to children who spent much of their time barefoot, many of whom had worms and parasites in their feet as a result.


The group helped the children and administrators build a garden to grow their own vegetables on campus, and also develop a tilapia farm and chicken coops.


When K2 began, only 40 percent of the school’s sighted children were able to pass standardized testing to gain entrance to secondary school. Blind children were not able to take the test. Today, 100 percent of the eligible children, including the blind children, have passed.


“This is how our donors’ money works,” said Kevin. “This is how it changes kids’ lives.”


Working with a local organization here in Phoenix called Project Cure that allocates millions of dollars in medical equipment that cannot be used by hospitals to non-profit organizations, as well as a local dental supply representative who procured used but workable dental chairs for the cause, K2 has provided three large containers of much-needed medical equipment to the freestanding clinic they built. For the first time, people in and around the village, as well as the children, had the opportunity to have bad teeth pulled, receive proper medications and feel cared for.


One boy with a disability, who had been on the ground for all of his nine years in Peru, was supplied with a wheelchair for the first time. To his joy, Kristen pushed him in it so that he could take part in a soccer game with his friends for the first time.


K2 Adventure Travel and K2 Adventure Foundation has led over 300 people up Mt. Kilimanjaro in over 15 trips, all of whom have made an impact on the children at the home.


Their work is not finished. This summer, K2 will be leading 70 people on adventure/philanthropy trips. In November, they will be leading “Veterans to the Summit,” a group of veterans from all eras of war who will be raising money to help the foundation continue to make a difference locally and abroad.


K2 Adventure Foundation will be holding the first of its two annual fundraisers, the Summer in the City Fashion Luncheon at the Phoenician May 18. The second event, Boots & Bling, will be held November 16. They hope to raise at least $100,000 at both events to continue helping.


“We just want to make the impossible possible for people,” said Kevin. “We want to be a household name. We want it to go as big as we can make it.”


As our coffee shop interview came to a close, Kevin once again disappeared into the crowd, a glowing example of what passion and caring can do. There are no limits to what we can each accomplish, if only we allow ourselves to try, and there are examples everywhere if we only choose to look – really look – and see the people all around us who are making a difference.


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