By Diane Hock
In 2017, my sister Kate and I decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. My sister was turning 60 and she decided that there was no better time to climb it so our trip was set in motion. For the next year we trained for the climb. Anyone who had made the climb told us that this trip would change our lives.
On June 26, 2017, Kate's son, Scott, passed away unexpectedly. Scott was 30 years old and left behind two wonderful boys, Wyatt (age 5) and Hayden (age 4). Scott's death changed everything. With 2 months to go, Kate lost a lot of the physical strength necessary to complete the climb. As she put it, she was trying to do the most physically demanding challenge of her life at the weakest time in her life. We both wavered on making the trip and it wasn't until we boarded the plane on August 29, 2017 that we committed to making the climb. What happened next was nothing short of a miracle.
On August 30, we landed at Kilimanjaro Airport and were greeted by our guide, Respicius Baitwa. After spending the day in Moshi preparing for the climb, we met our "Mountain Family" at the Umbwe Gate to begin this journey. The Umbwe Route is regarded as the toughest route on the mountain due to the fast assent with little time for acclimation. The success rate hovers below 50 percent. This route was a decision we made when we first booked the trip but Respicius assured us that he and his team would get us to the summit. Our climb had taken on a new purpose as we intended to scatter some of Scott's ashes at the top of the highest free standing mountain in the world - the closest place we would ever get to heaven.
With our mountain family's help as well as Kate's plea to Scott to help her up the mountain, we reached the summit on September 5, 2017 in just 5 days and 1 hour. We said our prayers, shed many tears and scattered Scott's ashes. As we began the descent, we noticed a smiling face out of snow on the adjacent mountainside. We knew Scott was present and that smile followed us down the mountain.
The details of our climb are important. We had budgeted 8 days for the climb and descent. Because we completed it earlier than expected, we were able to travel to Arusha to spend the day at the Rafiki Orphanage as well as Star School and Ngateu School. We had an entire day to spend with the children. That day changed our lives and will hopefully, change the lives of many as we create a legacy for Scott and his children.
We arrived at Rafiki late morning. We were greeted by Maxima “Momma” and Steve. Maxima cares for the children of Rafiki. Steve is responsible for managing the children’s education and maximizing charitable resources. You could feel their love from the moment we stepped out of the van and were greeted with hugs from all. Immediately, you could see the need.
I have always thought globally and Kate will admit that she always believed that we should take care of the needs in the United States before we helped the rest of the world but the moment she arrived at Rafiki, that changed. We talked about how children in the US have access to school and basic needs and these children do not. One little girl, Hamima had such a stare, it pierced your heart. I could see in Kate’s eyes the moment she saw her that she too would be on a mission to make life better for these children. Once your eyes have been opened to a problem, looking away is no longer an option.
We felt Scott’s presence as we walked the property. We asked Steve his immediate needs and he mentioned a garden could provide the children with healthy food and another source of income to support the center. The goats and donkeys from the neighborhood would eat everything they had planted in the garden. He showed us parts of their homemade fence that needed to be replaced.
We turned the corner to see where they had planted a garden. Our hearts stopped and tears flowed. In the corner of this barren garden full of weeds was a thriving cherry tomato plant. Wyatt, Scott’s son, loves cherry tomatoes. This summer he planted a cherry tomato garden on Kate and John’s deck and it was a source of pride and happiness for him. We knew at that moment that we would create “Wyatt’s Garden” in his honor. Wyatt has such a gentle spirit and he makes friends wherever he goes. We know that a garden would be the perfect way he could share his life with these children and share in his Dad’s legacy.
As we walked from the garden, we noticed a small play set. It was made out of pallets and had lived way past its usefulness. We both thought of the parks and playgrounds our children have access to and we knew at that moment that we could create “Hayden’s Playground” in his honor. Hayden is always the first kid out the door to play. He is always the one asking to go to the playground and we knew that a playground would be the perfect way he could share his life with Tanzanian children and share in his Dad’s legacy as well.
We left the orphanage with sadness for their needs, happiness for the love they showed and comfort knowing that these children were already so far ahead of others. In honor of Scott, we are raising funds to help orphaned and vulnerable children in Africa. The needs are great so we would like to start by raising funds for the first phase of the project. This phase would include “Scott’s Courtyard,” “Wyatt’s Garden,” and “Hayden’s Playground.”
And now to Phase Two: When Scott passed away, the only thing that gave me comfort was knowing that I already knew a lot people in heaven. I asked each of them to welcome him with open arms and take care of him for us. One of the first angels I reached out to was Sara Stepanian. Momma S had an infectious smile and she lived by the mantra – food is love. She was always feeding everyone. I don’t remember an outing with her that didn’t include food or Rheb’s Chocolates. I pictured her hugging Scott and telling him the first thing she needed to do was to get a little meat on his bones. I thought, what if we continue to honor people and start with “Sara’s Kitchen.” Doug told me about Mama Jane, an incredible woman who has no children of her own but feeds and cares for 45 orphaned children and, when possible feeds the neighborhood children on Sundays! She is a remarkable, kind woman. This is a woman who would use “Sara’s Kitchen” to fill the bellies and souls of many. We want to raise funds to help construct a permanent place for Jane to cook meals in Sara’s honor and support that kitchen by providing the means for her to raise chickens and goats and care for a garden.
I continued reaching out to angels including Michael “Wibs” Woodard and Michael Fiorelli, both of whom were very involved in sports. Both were great Dads and I knew they would welcome Scott. We could honor them by raising funds for sports equipment and programs. Hayden's Playground could include a small soccer field that could be named Healy Field in honor of Ed Healy. Ed coached various sports for his 5 children and he volunteered to help maintain the athletic fields his children's schools. The children of Rafiki as well as the neighborhood children will play soccer and other sports on Healy Field while wearing shirts and jerseys bearing his name.
We could honor Ed's mother, Susanne Healy, by building a teaching hair salon and Helen Romanoli Davis by providing funds for clothing. We could honor Eileen Deveaney by building “Eileen’s Sewing Center” and honor a dear friend with Micah's Chicken Coop.
On July 23rd, we honored the "Heaven Day" of Conner Austin. Connor's life brought two friends together many years ago and now it binds two families. We are keeping Connor's memory alive by distributing toys throughout Africa with Connor's Toy Box. Toy boxes with games and toys will not only be at Rafiki, Mama Jane's and Shades of Hope School but we will distribute toys in his name to vulnerable children in the community. We know that Scott and Connor are playing in heaven.
In the short time that Scott has been gone; so many others have joined him in heaven including his beloved Pop, Jim Willis. We could honor Mr. Willis by creating “Pop’s Pantry” that would help feed the children. We could honor Beau Benden by collection baby supplies for “Beau’s Bundles” and distributing them in poor communities. Friends could honor family members and friends by giving scholarships in honor of their loved ones.
It definitely takes a village to make this happen so any amount you can give will come with our love and gratitude for being part of Scott’s Legacy. We also invite you to specifically honor anyone you may like to by helping these children.
On September 24th, the morning of what would have been Scott’s 31st birthday, our family attended the service at Mountain Christian Church – a place that meant so much to Scott. The pastor referenced Mary Jackson’s remarks in the movie Hidden Figures by asking – “What decision are you going to make today that will matter 100 years from now?” I can guarantee you that if you make the decision to help these children, that it will matter 100 years from now.
Later that day, when I gave Scott’s eulogy, I promised to raise funds in his honor to create a better life for these children. I said that each child will know Scott and his sons and this would be his legacy. It is our hope that we will return to Tanzania in a few years with Wyatt and Hayden so they can see the legacy created by your kindness.
Asante sana | thank you very much.