When Herta von Stiegel decided to commit her 50th birthday to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for charity, she could've done what most daredevil philanthropists do: find some sponsors and set up a fundraising Facebook page. But for von Stiegel, that wouldn't suffice.
She decided to bring seven people with disabilities from the England-based charity with her.
As Ariya Capital Group CEO von Stiegel became more involved with Enham, a UK nonprofit that empowers people with disabilities, she didn't just want to help pour money into the cause. Instead, she wanted to show its beneficiaries -- and the world -- just how much people with physical and mental limitations can achieve, if given the chance.
"How do we help this amazing charity, which helps thousands of people, release its potential?" said von Stiegel, 54, reflecting on her deliberations over the best way to support the organization. "It just came to me."
And in 2008, after two years of training, the business executive helped lead the first crew of able-bodied and disabled people up Africa's highest peak. Von Stiegel recounts the grueling, inspiring and sometimes despairing moments of the seven-day trek in her recently-released memoir and documentary, The Mountain Within.
Three of the seven people from the 90-plus-year-old charity made it to the top, while the others had to turn back at varying points due to physical limitations. But von Stiegel says that getting to the summit was not her main mission.
"It's important for each one of us to take on challenges that take us out of our comfort zone and we don't know whether we are going to achieve it," von Stiegel told The Huffington Post. "This is not unique to disabled people."
The climbers living with physical and mental disabilities certainly left their comfort zones behind when they reached the mountain's base in Tanzania.
Liz Curtis hadn't left her house in about five years before she started training with von Stiegel's crew. After suffering a nervous breakdown in 2001, the 40-something woman developed agoraphobia and could not manage to venture outside.
But something about the flyer she received about the adventure compelled her.
She started out huddled in the corner, scared stiff, but as she hit the trail, she began to unfurl and smile as she soaked up what Kilimanjaro had to offer.
"I was sick and tired of being afraid," Curtis told von Stiegel.
For Jamie Magee, whose left side was paralyzed in a car accident when he was just 4 years old, making it to the 14,000-foot point was a freeing moment he didn't think he would ever experience.
Despite the altitude sickness and not getting to reach the top, von Stiegel said that Magee kept laughing as he lapped up the kind of adventure that's traditionally reserved for only the fittest of athletes.
When von Stiegel hit the top with her husband on a perfectly clear day, she said it was a moment she won't ever forget.
Making it all the more unique, von Stiegel had completed the rare feat of including a charity's beneficiaries in its awareness campaign.
Now that von Stiegel's 60th birthday is just a few years away, she's beginning to hatch some ideas on how to celebrate.
"I'm sure it will be something exciting," she said. "I just have this deep desire to live a life that has purpose and meaning and that actually empowers people."
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