By Ali Lamson, One Summit Manager, Development & Communications
Whenever I go to New York City, I instantly feel overwhelmed by the busyness in the air: the honking of cars, the rush of people, and the high-rise buildings looming overhead. It is daunting and frightening for someone who typically finds solace in the quietness of the woods and mountains. However, this time, I was in New York City for One Summit's Climb for Courage event with OS's Executive Director, Dianne Lynch, who worked in NYC for seven years, and Max Svec, Manager, Strategic Programs & Events. Having heard wonderful stories about Dianne's time living in New York, I was able to relax and was excited to experience the city with someone who knew every corner.
This weekend in New York City was my first time working at Climb for Courage (CFC) and Climb Higher (CH). While I have spent the past six months working at One Summit, I had yet to experience our flagship events. When Climb for Courage at Central Rock Gym Manhattan on Saturday rolled around, I was unsure what to expect. I tried to manage my expectations because, while I knew the event would be impactful, the mentors were only spending three hours with these children affected by cancer – how much support could they really provide them in such a short amount of time? Within the first five minutes, I realized that my thought process had been all wrong when I heard a Little Warrior shout, "Cool! There is a Navy SEAL!" when he caught a glimpse of a mentor. He was ecstatic to be in the same vicinity as a Navy SEAL – there was something to look forward to amidst his hectic life, filled with hospital visits and cancer treatments. At this Climb for Courage, we hosted Little Warriors new to the One Summit community, most of them hearing about us through Candlelighters NYC, a childhood cancer foundation, and the caring staff at Cohen Children's Medical Center. The families traveled from all over New York, New Jersey, and beyond to attend CFC.
As the thirteen kids rounded the corner and heard their Navy SEAL mentors cheering for them in the gauntlet (see picture below), their faces beamed with excitement and nervousness. Some looked up at the bouldering walls surrounding us, and you could tell by their faces that the rock wall was daunting. Many of our Little Warriors are in active treatment, so they live in constant uncertainty – traveling to different states and countries to receive painful treatment while being separated from their friends and family. And, if they are a sibling, the child is continuously passed to different friends and family members. So, even though their families arrived with the Little Warriors and were part of the opening activities, I can understand why the kids felt anxious about what would come next.
Once the mentees were matched individually with their mentors and gathered in groups, the kid's nervous faces turned into excited smiles and laughter. Our four Team Leaders led them through icebreakers, and the kids picked their team’s names. The team naming activity alleviated the kids' stressors. From the other side of the room, I heard a group yell their team name aloud, "SQUADZILLAS!" followed by shrieks of laughter. Each kid peeled off with their mentor and went through their Courage Packs, which contained One Summit hats, temporary tattoos, stickers, and camo helmets for climbing. As the mentees and mentors got to know each other, I took pictures of these special moments. Shortly after gearing up, the climbing began.
Peals of laughter filled the gym, and as I walked around, I heard snippets of "You can do it!" and "Keep going!" from the Navy SEALs as their mentees scaled the wall. Whether or not the child reached the top, the SEALs gently and kindly encouraged their mentees to continue climbing. The once-shy kids opened up and embraced the challenge immediately.
At one point, I saw a fearful seven-year-old Little Warrior halfway up the wall, struggling to reach the top. She was using the auto-belay, and her mentor was encouraging her from the ground. As soon as her mentor realized she was struggling, he immediately climbed the wall next to her. She kept repeating that she did not think she could make it to the top, but as her mentor climbed up to be eye level with her, I saw her visibly relax and take a small step up. Together, they made it to the very top of the wall.
When our Little Warriors needed a break from climbing, they picked out hats provided by Love Your Melon and lip balm made by Zeal Cares, made jewelry provided by Kendra Scott's Kendra Cares team, and chose inspirational words on a block provided by Coach Tom, one of our volunteers. We hosted three members of the Kendra Cares team, who ran a wonderful Color Bar station, giving our Little Warriors a creative climbing break to design jewelry for themselves or a loved one. We are so thankful for Zeal Cares, Love Your Melon, and Kendra Cares for their dedication to our Little Warriors – the hats, balms, and jewelry provided another source of happiness for the kids that day. Additionally, Little Warriors engaged in lively games of tag, colored, and built LEGOs with their Navy SEAL mentor.
The day went by so fast, and the joy the kids and mentors felt was palpable. As the program wrapped up, I took a few moments to reflect on everything I had witnessed - Navy SEALs encouraging their mentees to face their fears while doing so in a safe and controlled environment. I thought about how these kids fought for their lives daily, but today, they could just be kids. They could have fun and laugh together, connecting with their mentor, their siblings, and other kids who had a similar experience as them. It was moving to witness this and see the growth of their resilience throughout the day.
I had seen a significant shift in the kids' demeanor from when they arrived at the gym to when they left. When their families came to pick them up, they seemed devastated to leave their mentors and the Climb for Courage experience – one child said it best when he stated, "I wish I could stay here forever!". However, the mentors made a plan with the Little Warrior's parents to stay in touch with the families. I could tell that the kids were excited to have a new friend, supporter, and sidekick cheering them on throughout their treatment. It was clear to me that these short three hours had significantly impacted the Little Warriors and their mentors.
At the mentor dinner post-CFC, I was moved to tears when someone shared that mentees had already contacted their mentors on our private communication app, The Anchor. One of the Little Warriors had gone home and had already created a friendship bracelet for his Navy SEAL. As I talked to the mentors throughout the evening, I realized that the day also greatly impacted them. The graciousness that these tough guys expressed was unmatched. They let me know that the day had been even better than they could have imagined and that they will carry it with them as they move forward through life – whether when they head back to work or continue to adjust to civilian life. I feel incredibly grateful to be working with an organization that brings so much joy during a time when people need it most.
The day after Climb for Courage, we hosted our alum program, Climb Higher, where we welcomed two mentors and four kids who paired off for a morning of climbing and building new friendships. While Climb for Courage welcomes new families into the One Summit community, Climb Higher invites past CFC participants back to climb with some of One Summit's Navy SEAL mentors. Throughout the morning, new friendships formed, and the mentees tackled high rock walls with their mentors by their side.
We are incredibly thankful to our excellent partners who helped us bring Climb for Courage and Climb Higher back to New York City for another successful year. We want to thank Love Your Melon for being the presenting sponsor of our New York Climb for Courage program, as well as Kendra Scott's Kendra Cares Program, Zeal Cares, the Frank & Edith Orechio Foundation, and especially to Allan Andranikian and his amazing staff at Central Rock Gym (CRG) Manhattan for helping us create an engaging experience for our Little Warriors and Navy SEAL mentors. The entire New York CRG team is supportive, dedicated, and skilled, and they helped us create such a memorable experience for everyone who participated throughout the weekend. We are so grateful for your unwavering support of One Summit and our Climb for Courage/Climb Higher programs. To all who made these programs possible and helped bring them to life, we thank you.