Onward, Upward!

April 8, 2014 | Borough of Manhattan Community College

 Onward, Upward!

BMCC students face many challenges, but few can say they faced the challenge of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania.

In fact so far, there’s just one: Human Services major Carmen Miranda, who hiked Africa’s tallest mountain with the same perseverance she applies to her studies.

It was no walk in the park.

“The temperature would quickly drop from about 80 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and sunglasses were mandatory,” Miranda says. “The light from the snow can damage your eyes.”

Not only that, she says, as the landscape transformed from forest to alpine desert, “people were starting to feel altitude sickness, throwing up and getting dehydrated.”

On the fifth day, as they made their final ascent, the weather worsened dramatically.

“It would rain, then be sunny, then start snowing. It was crazy. It was windy and starting to hail, and it stung your face,” says Miranda.

“You had to put one foot right in front of the other, or you’d slide down the mountain. We were walking in zigzags, one guide to each hiker.”

Only 15 out of 25 people made it to highest peak, Gilman’s Point, “and I was the second one to get there,” she says. “I was the first female and the first from New York to make it to the very top.”

A desire to conquer challenges

Last summer, Carmen Miranda worked with a mural team, creating a canvas next to a public work by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. The opportunity came through a summer youth employment program and the nonprofit organization Creative Art Works (CAW).

It was then that she met CAW executive director Brian Ricklin, and six months later—sponsored by CAW—found herself climbing Kilimanjaro.

“Carmen expressed a desire to conquer challenges,” says Ricklin. “We watched her grow in so many ways during her artistic work experience and then mature exponentially as our ambassador in Kenya and Tanzania.”

Once there, she met youth leaders from other community-based organizations around New York City and East Africa, says Ricklin, who also joined the climb.

What young people experience as they ascend the mountain, he says, “has to do with teamwork as well as their own inner strength, very similar to the artistic process.”

Staying balanced

Carmen Miranda’s “inner strength” has served her well.

“I grew up in 15 foster homes,” she says, adding that she attended three high schools, and graduated from Manhattan High School in midtown Manhattan.

“My best subject was science. I enjoyed learning about plants, and doing experiments with chemicals,” but most of all, she says, “I love to draw.”

Her talent was mentored through CAW’s Summer Artworks 2013 mural project, in which she helped create a mural now hanging in the AXA Equitable Center in Manhattan, as well as a piece for Whole Foods Market.

She has also taken painting and life drawing classes at BMCC, where she majors in Human Services, is part of the Student Government Association and works in the mailroom.

She balances all this while keeping her grades up, finding a quiet place to study in the apartment she shares with four foster siblings; the youngest is a 2-year-old.

She related well, it turns out, with the 10 youths from Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and the U.S., who took part in the climb.

“They were awesome!” she says. “There weren’t in foster care, but they’ve struggled with unemployment or losing their parents. I definitely made some new friends.”

Pace yourself

For Carmen Miranda, the climb—organized by Kilimanjaro Initiative, a Non-Governmental Organization based in Nairobi, Kenya, and funded by the United Nations Federal Credit Union and private donors—began at JFK Airport.

Participants flew 18 hours to Amsterdam, then eight more to Kenya, and from there, she says, “we rode five hours on a bus from Oloitoktok, Kenya to their based camp at Marangu, Tanzania.”

For the first few days, they took practice hikes.

“Part of the training was to teach us to take it one step a time. It’s all about your pace. If you move too fast, you can’t breathe.”

There is also a danger of falling, she explains, as snow depletion on Mount Kilimanjaro—which serves as a kind of barometer for climate change—“causes the slopes to be unstable. It’s all going to melt someday.”

Lifelong memories

The hike went faster on the way down. The youths played soccer and talked about their experience.

“I learned how to self-reflect and take things day-by-day, how to set little goals for myself,” says Miranda.

She’ll never forget the experience or the companionship.

“Everyone spoke English, also Swahili, and were students or worked. Two of them had been to New York. They came from cities, like me, except one, who was a Masai. I adored the kids from Africa. They’re so gorgeous and curious.”

The adoration was mutual.

“On the first hike, they were pinching me because they wanted to see if I’m real,” she says, laughing.

“When we left, I got their email, their Facebook. We’re already in touch. A couple of them want to come to BMCC. I told them it’s a very diverse place.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you are age 16 to 24 and interested in a summer job through Creative Art Works (CAW), you can apply online for the 2014 Summer Youth Employment Program and select a provider that partners with CAW: The New York Mission Society, Inwood Community Services or Catholic Charities Community Services/Alianza. Applications are selected by lottery and the deadline is April 24, 2014.

If are interested in applying to join next year’s Kilimanjaro Initiative climb or want more information, please contact Judy Waithira at waithira@kilimanjaroninitiative.org