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Destination Kilimanjaro

IS&T staffers tackle mountain for cerebral palsy

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Phil Berenz is embarking on a journey that he hopes will make him only the third person in the world with cerebral palsy to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. Berenz is climbing the 19,341-foot mountain to raise money and awareness for the neurological disorder in which the brain fails to send proper signals to the muscles.

“A lot of people think CP is a disease,” says the client support specialist at Information Services & Technology, who remains active today thanks to a lifetime of physical therapy and surgery. “It’s actually a group of chronic conditions. It’s not something that you can cure, but something that you try to manage.”

Joining him in his trek up Africa’s highest mountain will be client support specialist Brian Baldeck, communication and documentation specialist Austin Whipple (MET’13), and desktop services specialist Jared Villemaire. The four friends met working at IS&T, where they all sat within 30 feet of one another.

The four hope to use their group Climb for Cerebral Palsy to collect $30,000 for United Cerebral Palsy of Metro Boston (UCP). So far, more than $11,000 in donations have come in, and they will continue fundraising after they return.

“I want this climb to raise both awareness and money for people living with cerebral palsy,” says the 28-year-old Berenz. “Today I’m in a place where I feel secure. I’ve had great therapy and a surgery that made it easier for me to walk, and now I want to go help others.”

Berenz was born nearly two and a half months early and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was a year and a half. When he was eight, doctors performed an innovative surgery to elongate his calf muscles, making it possible for him to grow up playing basketball, hiking, and rock climbing.

“My right leg still wants to turn inwards,” says Berenz, who wears a brace on the leg and has a slight limp. “My brain is firing so many signals to the right side that it wants to tighten up because it’s the only response it knows how to do.”

Mount Kilimanjaro National Park, Tanzania, Africa

Mount Kilimanjaro taken from the town of Moshi, close to the entrance to Mount Kilimanjaro National Park. Photo by Marc van der Chijs

Early last year, Berenz was rock climbing with Whipple and Baldeck when a poster advertising a charity that was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro gave him the idea to do a similar climb for cerebral palsy. He pitched the idea to his friends in April and they agreed.

For Villemaire, joining his friends on the seven-day hike was a no-brainer: a real adventure and chance to do some good. “Phil’s condition has never held him back from doing anything,” says Villemaire. “He never complains. So I guess seeing how motivated he was to do this climb and learning how the treatment he received when he was young allowed him to get to where he is today—I want that for everyone.”

To prepare for the trip, the four friends have hiked around the Blue Hills in Quincy and regularly go to the gym. They stepped up their normal exercise routines to focus on cardio- and leg-strengthening. In September, they hiked trails in Colorado to see how their bodies would react to higher altitude.

Although about 35,000 people climb the Tanzanian mountain each year, risks abound, and the most salient is the lack of oxygen at the peak. “The lower oxygen levels mean that you’re taking breaths as you normally would, but you’re just not getting enough out of it,” Baldeck says. “It feels like every breath you take is hollow.”

Many climbers suffer from altitude sickness, which in extreme cases can be fatal. Berenz has a greater risk of being affected by altitude sickness than his friends because of his cerebral palsy. One way they plan to avoid this problem is to hike several hundred feet a day and then backtrack a bit at day’s end to get acclimated to the altitude, and to sleep.

For Berenz, the descent from Kilimanjaro may be more challenging than the ascent. On the way up, he will wear a leg brace that helps him make better use of the upper muscles in his leg so that his calf muscles don’t tire out as quickly.

Planning the logistics of the climb and raising money have been time-consuming tasks, with Whipple building the website, Baldeck arranging media coverage and updating their Twitter and Facebook accounts, and Villemaire in charge of fundraising. “Phil is the motor,” Villemaire says, “because in the last five months there hasn’t been a day that he hasn’t worked on this project, keeping the group on track and appearing on TV.”

Perhaps most important for the four has been finding out whether or not they could stand each other on the long flight to Tanzania and then during the seven-day hike, something that their months of training together was able to settle.

“I mean, we’ve picked who we’ll eat if things go wrong,” Baldeck interjects, tongue-in-cheek. “But that would be only as a very last resort.”

2 Comments
Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

2 Comments on Destination Kilimanjaro

  • Project Mailbox on 02.08.2013 at 3:16 pm

    Congrats guys!! Good luck to the BU Project Mailbox September Charity of the Month! :)

  • RR3 on 03.25.2013 at 11:10 am

    Can you post how we can support this great young man in his quest to climb Kilamanjaro? This is awesome that he is doing it!

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