Woman raises money for RegalCare nursing homes with Kilimanjaro hike

By LIESEL NYGARD

For the Recorder

Published: 11-25-2022 3:52 PM

While scrolling through a Facebook group for hiking enthusiasts, Millis resident Kara O’Leary came across a trip to Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. She used the opportunity to combine two of her passions, raising $1,270 for nursing homes.

O’Leary, 29, used the six-day hiking trip to raise money for RegalCare, where she works as a regional director of recreation and activities. RegalCare has locations in Greenfield, Sharon, Lowell, Taunton, Quincy, Harwich, Holyoke and Worcester.

“I was just trying to combine my two passions,” she said, “which are working with the elderly and hiking.”

With the money she raised, O’Leary donated about $100 to the Greenfield facility at 95 Laurel St., formerly the Buckley HealthCare Center, for a Halloween party and craft fair. Another $600 was split across Greenfield and other RegalCare facilities for hairdressing services, which covered the costs for about 24 nursing home residents.

“Kara is such an engaging activity leader, full of energy and inspiration for those around her,” Dane Rank, administrator for RegalCare in Greenfield, wrote in an email. “It is so nice to see that even in her personal life, her focus is on the well-being of all of our residents.”

Starting Oct. 24, O’Leary, nine other hikers and 39 staff members (chefs, porters and toilet crew) ascended the 19,341-foot-high mountain on “extremely sandy and dusty” terrain. The hikers were told to take the Rongai route after a wildfire broke out on their initial route on Lemosho.

O’Leary carried a 15-pound bag with some essentials. The staff, however, carried 35-pound bags that included everything the hikers needed.

“We could not have done it without them,” O’Leary said of the staff. “They set up our tents every night. They would take the tents down, set up the entire campsite, cook all the food (and) carry most of the items.”

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Every day, O’Leary said the chefs would serve three meals. For breakfast, hikers could choose porridge, bacon, fresh fruit, eggs and/or toast. Lunch would be chicken noodle soup, rice, beef stew or pumpkin soup. For dinner, the chefs would serve fajitas with rice, beef, grilled vegetables or chicken, and pasta. The meals included a lot of carbohydrates, which O’Leary said is “really important because you’re burning through energy so fast” while hiking.

On the last night of the trek, Oct. 30, the hikers climbed from 15,000 feet to 19,000 feet to reach the summit.

O’Leary said this was the hardest night. By then, she said people were showing symptoms of serious altitude sickness. Two people nearly fainted when they reached the top of the first of three summits and had to descend the mountain. Others were lightheaded, dizzy and were experiencing severe headaches, shortness of breath, coughing, vomiting and nausea.

To reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness, O’Leary took Diamox. Health checks were also required for hikers twice daily that involved checking their heart rate, measuring their blood oxygen levels and asking health questions, to make sure no one had symptoms of cerebral or pulmonary edema.

Luckily, O’Leary said she didn’t have any symptoms and managed to be the first person to make it to all three summits, including the highest one at 19,341 feet.

“I made it all the way to the third summit,” she recounted. “But when we got up to the first summit, it was sunrise and the sun was starting to come up and we looked out and our guides saw … another wildfire (had) broken out.”

The wildfire broke out on their route, meaning the hikers had to get out quickly. O’Leary said they had to “ski through the sand,” which she described as running down the mountain quickly and pretending you’re skiing over the sandy terrain. By 7 p.m. that night, they were evacuated by a Jeep after hiking 6 miles through thick smoke.

“That was really scary,” she reflected. “It was a very bumpy ride and very scary ride down the mountain, and I was having smoke inhalation signs. I was joking around that I did very well with the altitude; I did not do very well with the smoke. ... I expected to be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, but I didn’t expect to be hiking through a wildfire.”

O’Leary said the fundraiser for the nursing homes was what drove her to keep going because so many people donated and she “didn’t want to let them down.”

While still in Africa, O’Leary attended a ceremony on Nov. 1 at the Kilimanjaro National Park for the hikers. O’Leary was presented a certificate documenting that she hiked all the way to the top of the mountain’s summit.

O’Leary said she hopes to hold another fundraiser, such as possibly hiking Mount Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine at 5,267 feet.

“I feel like my mindset now is, ‘OK, I’ve done Kilimanjaro, I think I can do anything,’” O’Leary said. “I feel like I need to give back to everyone who has helped me on my climb. I really couldn’t have done it without them.”

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