Into Africa, to Conquer a Mountain and Save Lives

Volunteers to make bid for Kilimanjaro's peak in hopes of raising $1 million to help sick children

In 2001, Dr. Ami Cohen was descending Mount Kilimanjaro when he suddenly died from medical complications. This summer, 10 year's after Cohen's tragic accident, a number of staff and volunteers from Save A Child's Heart, an Israeli non-profit Cohen founded providing medical care for children from developing countries, are planning to once again conquer Africa's highest mountain, to raise funds for the organization and honor U.S.-born Cohen's memory.

Among the climbers are a handful of Anglo immigrants to Israel and a doctor from Tanzania currently working for the group.

"We're going back to Africa, the place where Save A Child's Heart began, and we're going there to commemorate Ami's life's work and to continue it," said Emma Hacohen, the Toronto-born project coordinator and one the 17 climbers.

Cohen founded the nonprofit after having been approached with the idea by an Ethiopian doctor. "We're still very much dedicated to Ami's mission, even though he is not here. Although he is not around, his legacy lasts," Hacohen said.

Save A Child's Heart provides life-saving heart surgeries and follow-up care for children from Africa, Iraq, the West Bank and Gaza. Since Cohen founded the organization in 1995, shortly after having moved to Israel, doctors examined or treated more than 8,000 young patients from 42 countries. The group is headquartered at a cardiology clinic at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon but currently seeks to create "centers of competence" in developing countries to improve medical care locally.

Hocohen and the other climbers will be joined on the expedition to the Kilimanjaro by Save A Child's Heart's U.K.-born executive director Simon Fisher, the organization's Tanzania-born cardiothoracic surgery fellow Godwin Godfrey, volunteer Lauren Winkler, who immigrated from California a year ago, four Israeli-born members of a film crew and about a dozen international supporters.

The climbers will be supported by a crew of some 80 porters and guides.

A few weeks ago, Save A Child's Heart organized a fundraising trip and training run to Mount Arbel, neat Tiberias. While only 181 meters above sea level (and 380 meters above the surrounding area ), Hacohen considered the hike good preparation for the week of July 8, when she tackles the Kilimanjaro.

"This was a really great experience because we got to train and we got to work in our hiking boots. We had this glimpse when we got to the summit of Arbel, it was exciting for us, now we know what we're looking forward to."

Every climber pledged to raise $10,000 - the amount needed to bring one sick child to Israel and operate on them here. In order to be able to treat 100 children, the group is looking to raise $1 million total, with the help of private and corporate sponsors. As of this week, $300,000 has been donated.

"I'm finding it difficult to fundraise because it's too far removed from a lot of people in Israel," Hacohen lamented. "People want to focus on Israeli issues and sometimes Africa can seem a little bit far removed."

Before the crew vies for the summit, it will spend a week on a medical mission to Tanzania, where Save A Child's Heart surgeons will operate on 10 children suffering from heart disease.

"This will be first time open heart surgery is done in that region," Hacohen said, adding that the crew will bring the necessary medical equipment with them.

"Then, when we get to the top, we're hoping to be really able to have that moment at the top, to shout out our mission to Africa and the world - and have some pictures taken. Of course we can't forget to document it."