Kelley M. Ward
Kelley M. Ward

Milele (Family Forever in Swahili)
Thursday, March 02
As I sit here in the Amsterdam airport awaiting the final leg of my slow return to the United States, my trusty altimeter app reads -3 feet in altitude. But my head (and my heart) still seem to be in the clouds. How can one put a year into a few reflective paragraphs - let alone all that we triumphed over in the last three weeks? My swirling brain can only think of one thing: this team. Nothing would've been possible without this team.
 
I've been on sports teams, I work within a team of very talented, beautifully passionate women at the MMRF and I've managed many other endurance events teams throughout my three years at the MMRF, but this was something truly special. I knew from the get-go that we had quite the group for the 2017 Mt. Kilimanjaro climb but never could I imagine what a family unit we would become and just how big this family is. 
 
Here are the numbers to help with the math that makes up this family unit:
 
16 - The number of team members for the 2017 Mt. Kilimanjaro hike. In the week or so leading up to the trip we had two team members who were unable to continue with us - Mark Herkert, whom I wrote about previously, needed to stay stateside to improve his immune health; and Daryl Olson, who suffered AFib problems once arriving in Amsterdam (the half-way point for us on our way to Africa) and made the crucial decision to return home safely. Granted our sadness, we had to move forward as a group of 14, we never let Mark or Daryl leave from our hearts and our minds as we kept our eye on the goal: the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. They served as additional fuel to our motivational fire.
 
18 - This is the team (14 MMRF participants) plus Erik Jones, our guide and my co-team leader from Embark, Marty Murphy from Cure Media, and John Waller and Ben Canales, the insanely talented documentarians from Uncage the Soul who captured entire journey all the while hiking to 19,341 feet (again). On the 18th, the core group of 18 people moved forward and took our first steps on Mt. Kilimanjaro at the Lemosho Gate.
 
72 - The number of porters, guides, cooks, camping crew, etc. from Embark that helped our team get up Mt. Kilimanjaro. These men were nothing short of amazing. Carrying up to 50 pounds of gear on their heads plus a pack on their back, all the while leading our every move and making sure we safely made it to the next camp each day or had clean water to drink from for eight days, helped us blow up our sleeping pads when it was too hard to at altitude, or were a literal shoulder to cry on as we slowly climbed to the summit in the pitch-black night, and so so much more. The actual trek and journey across Kilimanjaro would be impossible without these young men and their unwavering support and positive attitudes - always welcoming us with a smile, a joke, or a celebratory song and dance.
 
Over $250,000 - This is how much we raised as a team! To date we are the highest fundraising team from the MM4MM program and we could not be more proud! We actually found out on summit day that we officially surpassed $250,000 on our website and we were thrilled. It is an even more poignant and special moment when we realize that because of the MM4MM partnership and the sponsorship from Takeda Oncology ALL of these funds raised go directly to the MMRF to help accelerate a cure for Multiple Myeloma. This is why we were doing this. This is why the pain and mental struggle each day were worth it.
 
There are hundreds, if not in the thousands, of donors and supporters that helped us all reach so many milestones. From $250,000 raised to being able to call and hear that familiar, incredible, supportive and encouraging voice on the other end of the line at 15,000 feet - our supporters made all of this possible. It's not every day that someone has the opportunity to apply to do something life-changing, let alone accept that opportunity to follow your dreams of achieving it. I know I speak for the entire team when I say that personally it has meant the world to me to have such an amazing support system throughout the last year.  
 
From helping us reach our fundraising goals, to encouraging us when we were feeling the daunting shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro and all her mighty 19,341 feet looming ahead of us, to joining us on long training walks or hikes, or another cumbersome visit to REI to check off a few more items off the gear list, or overseeing the obsessive packing and repacking  process, but most especially, sending the most loving and supportive texts, emails, and phone calls while we've been on the mountain.
 
Our family must be over a thousand people with the immense amount of support we've received in all forms imaginable. It has been the most impactful part to all of us to feel so warmly supported by so many from all corners of the world. 
 
It wasn't until our hour drive from Moshi, Tanzania where we stayed pre and post-climb, to the airport on the 28th that it hit me just how moving of an experience this has been. There were 16 strangers who signed up to hike the world's tallest free standing mountain, travel all the way to Africa to do so, and open up their lives to the public for the greater good to help raise funds and awareness for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation. There are thousands of supporters waiting with open arms for us to come home and congratulate us for a multitude of reasons, and there are 72 young Tanzanian men whom we will never forget and be eternally grateful to for their physical support and the never-ending ability to be positive and uplifting. We are incredibly fortunate for this experience.
 
We are a family. Yesterday, today and forever. We are bound by an experience that few will ever have the chance to achieve and that no one could ever recreate. It never mattered the altitude or mileage ahead of us or how much our muscles ached, or how scary a portion of the trek may have been, we always leaned into the situation and leaned on each other. Each curveball made us tighter, stronger and more focused than before. I couldn't ask for a better group of people to work with, connect with, lean on when I struggled to put one foot in front of the other, or support as each of them chased down a dream and made it a reality. It will forever be my honor to have been their team leader.
 
We are Familia Milele. Asante Sana (Thank you very much)!
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