Scaling New Heights

Melissa Richardson’s Mount Kilimanjaro trek helped raise funds for children in need.

Melissa Richardson ’13DNP isn’t a practiced hiker or camping enthusiast. But when her pastor proposed that she climb Mount Kilimanjaro with the mission’s team to raise money for children in need, she didn’t hesitate to say yes. “I had visited my church’s sister congregation in Nairobi, Kenya, and saw firsthand the extreme poverty experienced there,” says Richardson, a family nurse practitioner and nurse manager at RWJBarnabas Health’s Somerset Family Practice. “I embraced the challenge of the climb because I knew we could have a tangible impact on the children of that community.”

About eight months ahead of her departure, she began training. She climbed countless flights of stairs and took hours-long hikes, all while simulating the low oxygen conditions she’d encounter on the mountain. And though she knew that climbing Africa’s highest freestanding peak would be no easy task, she is the first to admit that the hike was far more challenging than she anticipated.

For eight grueling days, Richardson navigated treacherous terrain and relentless inclines along the Lemosho Route, a challenging path that tested her endurance and determination every step of the way. “Day two was a defining day,” she recalls. “The excitement and anticipation had worn off and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.

I realized this task was beyond my physical capabilities and, over the course of the climb, I got to the point where I physically didn’t think I could take another step.”

Despite the physical and mental strain, Richardson ultimately achieved her goal, arriving at the mountain’s summit on the morn- ing of Feb. 7. “I prayed my way up that mountain,” she admits, adding that meditating on a particular scripture (Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me”) got her through.

The true culmination of Richardson’s efforts came when she arrived a few days later at the Biafra School in Nairobi, where roughly 250 children attend preschool through eighth grade. During her visit, Richardson had the privilege of meeting the children and serving them lunch, made possible thanks to the funds she raised. She was told that it was the first day every student at the school had lunch since its founding. “These are children who don’t necessarily know where their next meal is coming from, and still, they’re all smiles,” she says. “We talked about their dreams and what they want to be when they grow up. It really motivated me to do more to help them reach their goals.”

Looking ahead, Richardson hopes to continue to empower and uplift the community by raising funds for school supplies and desks, providing health education and prevention, and connecting students and parents with teaching, construction, healthcare, and other professionals. “Many of these children do very well in school but don’t have the resources to continue their education,” she says. “I met one young lady who finished high school and wants to be a nurse. That would be a way out of poverty for her whole family and is far more than what we can do with our fundraising. If we can continue to help them move through school and trade school, the whole community can experience a turnaround one family at a time.”