Published in the October 1, 2015 edition
By BOB TUROSZ
NORTH READING – Joel and Julia Spruance are a young couple who moved to town about a year ago and quickly established roots in their Martins Pond neighborhood and the North Reading community. Now, they are ready to take on the adventure of their lives, as part of a team taking three teenagers with disabilities on a trek called “Kilimanjaro with the Children” to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa to prove that despite physical problems, the future can be bright for those born with disabilities.
Mount Kilimanjaro, located on the border between Tanzania and Kenya, is the fourth highest mountain in the world and although it has been climbed many times, and sometimes by those with disabilities, no local person from east Africa with disabilities has ever climbed the mountain – a fact that speaks volumes about the stigma attached to children born in east Africa with disabilities, malformations, cerebral palsy, deafness, Down Syndrome, etc. Even in this day and age, such children are often seen as cursed or someone else’s problem. They can be abandoned, neglected or even worse.
That’s where an organization called “Kupenda for the Children” comes in. “Kupenda” means “to love” and the organization serves kids born in Kenya with disabilities. The organization was founded by a woman from Hamilton, Mass., who was born without her left hand and discovered that if she had been born in that part of the world, she might very well have been killed at birth. Kupenda is a Christian-based, non-profit organization that strives to meet the needs of hundreds of children in Kenya to feel loved and accepted.
Joel Spruance is a history teacher and coach at Essex Technical High School and Julia works at Waypoint Adventures in Newton, a non-profit that runs adventure and education programs for youths and adults with disabilities.
“My passion has been in recreation and adventure and I’ve seen how the power of adventure can really effect change in someone’s belief in themselves and self-esteem their personal value. That’s part of what is driving this adventure,” she said.
Julia has been a volunteer with Kupenda since 2007 and has been to Kenya before and met some of the children in the program. The three teens they plan to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with are Mercyline Rogers, a courageous and vivacious 15-year-old with cerebral palsy, Hassan Ambrose, a hearing-impaired 16-year-old who is athletic and a natural leader and Fumo Hussein, 19, who was born with an unspecified cognitive impairment. This will be Joel’s first trip there and he’s definitely enthusiastic.
“At the very least, there’s no systematic right to education or the basic rights we would grant anyone. The government has partnered with organizations like Kupenda to provide an education because they can’t do it on their own. Kupenda definitely fills a need,” Joel said.
“Kupenda is providing love for children who may not experience it otherwise, based on their disability,” added Julia. “We have yet to find a local Kenyan or Tanzanian person with a disability who has climbed the mountain before. That would be a really big deal.”
Joel and Julia are planning to make the trip (which is technically to Tanzania, where the Kilimanjaro airport is located), from Dec. 27 to Jan. 10. That time of the year is summer in east Africa. Although the mountain has been climbed many times before, the magnitude of the challenge should not be underestimated. Statistics say 50 percent of the people don’t make it because of altitude sickness and there have been some accidents “here and there,” said Julia. The top of the mountain should be snow covered, even at that time of year, even though its glaciers are shrinking.
The Spruances hope to raise $20,000 for Kupenda and this special trek and they’re halfway there but they need to continue to spread the word. Anyone from North Reading who wants to get involved can help in a number of ways.
You can visit www.kupenda.org/kili and donate to a team member, including Mercyline, Hassan and Fumo. Or you can turn out at Lake Quannapowitt in Wakefield at noon on Sunday, Oct. 11 for a training walk around the Lake. Youth and adults with disabilities will be welcome. Meet at the gazebo. There will be Support Crew T-shirts available as well as stickers and wristbands.
“If people don’t feel they have a connection to any one of us, they can certainly donate to any of the three kids on the website, which is set up that way. If they’d rather donate to Hassan, Mercyline or Fumo they can do that,” said Julia. For more information, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A few weeks after the walk around the Lake, the couple will begin their training warm up in earnest on Oct. 24 with a hike up Mount Lafayette in New Hampshire, which at 5,249 feet is very much a runt compared to Mt. Kilimanjaro, (19,341 feet above sea level and the tallest peak in Africa).
But after all, they have to start somewhere.
People can follow their progress up Mt. Kilimanjaro on Instagram. There will be updates available via gps @kupendaforthechildren.
“North Reading has been great, our neighbors have been getting excited for our expedition and they’ve already donated and supported us. We’re just thankful for this opportunity and we’re really excited,” said Julia.
Joel and Julia both hope the Kenyan government’s experience of working with organizations like Kupenda and the example set by Kilimanjaro with the Children will lead to a better quality of life for kids like Mercyline, Hassan and Fumo.
“As we continue to publicize this before and after the climb, just telling our story, this one time event can make a lot of change happen over years and years,” Julia said.