Two NJ kids summit Kilimanjaro while raising funds for Ukraine

“There was no doubt till the summit day that we could do it. It is only when we could see the summit point after six hours of climb that we thought we could finally do it.”

Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa, and the highest free-standing mountain in the world. At 19,308 feet, those who climb it face several days of hiking, freezing temperatures, challenging terrain and altitude sickness.

Nothing a few kids from Jersey can’t handle.

Ileene, 12, and Neil Dedhia, 9, from West Windsor, recently traveled to Tanzania and completed the multi-day hike up Kilimanjaro with their parents, Bhavesh and Amita, and a guide. In addition to climbing the mountain, the kids are raising funds for a nonprofit supporting Ukrainians during the war.

Kilimanjaro is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes anywhere from five to 10 days to hike up the gradually escalating mountain (technically a dormant volcano). Now, the Dedhias are active; the kids play sports, and the family goes out for hikes often. But Bhavesh was clear before taking off on the journey that Kilimanjaro is a much bigger challenge than, say, the Sourland Mountains—both physically and mentally. 

“The mental part, we are telling them is extremely difficult,” Bhavesh told us before the hike. “‘You have been in the cold in the U.S., sometimes the weather goes to 5 [degrees]. This is going to be all the time outside, right? It’s going to be much, much harder. We all would want to give up.’ … Mentally, we’ll have to be ready with some of these things. We are not living in a house. I don’t think [Ileene and Neil] know what they are getting into really, but they’re like, ‘Yeah whatever.’ We are making sure to tell them as much as possible to prepare them… and us more than them.”

Amita said beforehand that they weren’t going to take unnecessary risks, particularly because no one in the family were, at the time, “serious climbers,” who had a climb like this under their belts.

“We want to do the summit. We’ll push ourselves, but if there’s anything—if we can’t get there—it’s going to be an experience nonetheless. If we don’t reach, fine,” Amita said.

The first days of the hike were tough, but manageable—“The overall climb was much harder than we had imagined,” Ileene wrote in an email to us after the hike. The Dedhias passed through multiple ecosystems: rainforest, moorland and then high desert. That’s when the temperature dropped, with most days in freezing temperatures.

Anyone who’s been on a long excursion knows, at some point, you get your legs under you and build strength even as you’re exerting yourself. But the unique challenge of Kilimanjaro is that one really can’t prepare for the final summit day. Extreme cold, 17 hours of hiking, 3,200 feet of elevation, little to no food, and all the altitude sickness symptoms that come with it. Estimates for the success rate on Kilimanjaro vary widely from 40% to 80%, but it seems safe to say that, at the very least, it’s a tough climb.

“There was no doubt till the summit day that we could do it,” Bhavesh wrote in an email after the hike. “It is only when we could see the summit point after six hours of climb that we thought we could finally do it.” 

Summit day started at midnight and ended the next evening at 6 p.m. Amita and Neil were dealing with altitude sickness, experiencing nausea and headaches. Ileene was extremely tired on the final climb to the summit (who wouldn’t be?).

“We did not sleep and were so exhausted that we didn’t eat anything till next morning,” Ileene said after the hike.

“We had a lot of challenges due to either the food or higher altitude, like headaches and stomach upsets, which caused diarrhea and vomiting, but in spite of these challenges, we were happy to see that [the] kids were relentless and kept pushing forward to reach the top,” Bhavesh wrote.

The Dedhias made it up the mountain in 14-degree weather, and were rewarded with a stunning view of Mawenzie Peak, the third highest mountain in Africa.

“It was like heaven on Earth. The calm connection of the mountain was very positive and brought us all peace and joy,” Bhavesh recalled.

The motivation, Ileene wrote in an email, to finish the climb even in tough moments was the thought of helping those in Ukraine. Through a fundraiser on GoFundMe, they’ve raised more than half of their $10,000 goal, which will be donated to a verified nonprofit supporting Ukrainians. 

“As we read more about the crisis, we are very sad at the devastation,” Ileene writes on the fundraiser. “We felt helpless, not knowing what we could do from 5,000 miles away to serve those in need. As we discussed options with our parents to help, we concluded that one way to make an impact was to raise funds by striving to accomplish an extraordinary challenge.”

Ileene and Neil heard about the crisis in Ukraine through their parents, who wanted to make them aware of the situation, without exposing them to some of the specific horrors within it. 

“We wouldn’t get too much into details about the horrifying stories that we hear or see on the news,” Amita said. “In fact, since we don’t give technology to our kids, it’s through our conversations with them that they heard about this. I told them stories about how some kids had to leave their homes and were not able to go to school. [How some] lost family members and siblings. My daughter said, ‘Why don’t we go to Ukraine and adopt a child?’ In fact, we were even looking for some refugee families we can help around here, but we were not able to connect with people. We thought, why not raise funds?”

Supporting charitable work is in the Dedhias’ DNA. The family volunteers often and donates food to a nearby veterans’ community. Ileene is involved in an organization that collects used laptops and tablets still in good working order and donates them to refugees. And Ileene and Neil ran a lemonade stand during COVID to raise funds for charity.

Through the process of raising funds for Ukraine, Bhavesh believes his children will connect with those who have lost homes, loved ones and livelihoods there, and gain perspective on their own lives. He grew up in India and saw people struggling to get by, but the situation in Ukraine is different, he says.

“People had everything and they lost everything. That correlates better [to our kids]; they have a lot to be thankful for. They can now have that perspective if we lose everything suddenly.”

Indeed, while the funds will support Ukraine, and the hike was inspired by a desire to help people there, the lasting impact of the Kilimanjaro experience on the Dedhias might be the perspective they gained from it.

“We are so humbled by the challenges we went through,” Bhavesh wrote after the climb. “It has made all of us more confident in ourselves; especially the kids, they feel so confident and proud in achieving such a magnificent feat. The experience was humbling and we appreciate everything we have, which seems like a normal way of life for many.”

More information on the fundraiser, which is still active, can be found here.