They were an unlikely team of trekkers. Some had cerebral palsy, others with autism, four were visually impaired and one needed crutches. All, however, were determined that no disability would prevent them from living life to the fullest. Empowering them to do just that was non-profit organisation YMCA Singapore.
“For the last 14 years, we have been organising Y Camp Challenge where we take people with special needs outdoors four times a year. This year, we decided to take it to another level,” said Steve Loh, General Secretary and CEO of YMCA Singapore.
Next Level Challenge
That new level was to climb Japan’s tallest peak, the nearly 4,000-metre high Mount Fuji, in August 2019. For able-bodied adventurers, that would have been an easy one-day expedition. For the 10 people with various disabilities, it would be a monumental two-day journey requiring the aid of volunteers, local guides and even a team doctor.
“We wanted something inspirational and aspirational, something that would uplift them and inspire them to reach beyond themselves,” said Mr Loh of their choice of destination.
To meet the challenge, the 24-member team trained together for three months, going for hikes regularly and even completing a vertical marathon that required them to race up 57 floors.
Added Mr Loh: “The training sessions were not purely physical. It was actually for the volunteers like us to figure out how we were going to keep up with them and the kind of help they needed.”
One of the participants, 46-year-old Chris Tan, has only five per cent of her vision left because of glaucoma which she developed in her teens.
“I definitely need a guide to be with me. My guide will be my eyes. She has to describe every single step to me, the rocks, the terrain to make sure I am able to manage the trail,” she explained.
Many also went the extra mile and trained on their own. Oh Siew May, 48, who has speech and movement difficulties because of cerebral palsy, took the stairs to get to her 25th storey apartment four times a week every week for months.
“I want to tell people that being disabled doesn’t mean we are unable. We can do everything that we want,” she said.
Next Leap Partners
Given the magnitude of such projects, organisations often cannot work alone. That is where charity funds like Mediacorp Enable Fund (MEF) are able to come in. MEF was one of the sponsors of YMCA Mt Fuji Inclusive Expedition 2019, lending both financial support and resources to help fulfil aspirations.
Actress and Mediacorp’s Gold 905 DJ Denise Tan was one of the volunteers for the climb.
“I think a world in which we help each other achieve our dreams is a better place in which to live. If you can help just one person today with your gift, it’s still worth it. It’s life-changing and it goes both ways,” said Tan.
“I was paired with Chris. We ran together to build stamina, climbed stairs and did a few practice hikes up and down Bukit Timah Hill in preparation.
They are amazing individuals. They have this can-do spirit that puts us to shame and physically, they are very, very fit. They train longer and harder than any of us abled-bodied people.”
Next Climb on the Agenda
That kind of grit certainly came in handy during the actual climb, especially when the weather was not in their favour. Heavy rains during their ascent made the rocky paths even more of a challenge.
“I did not lose motivation because in my mind I always keep telling myself how to reach to the top to get some ramen inside of me,” said Harun Rahamad who has cerebral palsy.
Bone cancer survivor James Wong, 28, shared: “In a group, everyone moves at a different pace. I couldn’t really run to catch up with the team. But I hope that the climb will raise awareness about people with disabilities, that we can do beyond what we imagine.”
In the end, the team made it to the eighth station, just a little shy of the summit of Mount Fuji. Still, it was a win. They were able to raise $200,000 for future outdoor activities for the special needs community and they proved that with gumption and good partners, few things are insurmountable.