March 22, 2019

‘It was in God’s hands’: Teachers overcome fear and challenges on climb of Africa’s highest mountain

Dee Anne and Paul Sinclair, teachers at Father Thomas Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis, smile before their climb up Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in eastern Africa during the summer of 2018. The Sinclairs were able to take part in their adventure thanks to two grants awarded through the Lilly Endowment’s Teacher Creativity Fellowship program, a program that helps “educators to pursue their dreams and passions.” (Submitted photo)

Dee Anne and Paul Sinclair, teachers at Father Thomas Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis, smile before their climb up Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in eastern Africa during the summer of 2018. The Sinclairs were able to take part in their adventure thanks to two grants awarded through the Lilly Endowment’s Teacher Creativity Fellowship program, a program that helps “educators to pursue their dreams and passions.” (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Paul and Dee Anne Sinclair had faced dangerous moments before—including clinging to the side of a mountain as they climbed toward the base camp of Mount Everest.

Their trips around the world had also led the married couple of 32 years to navigate around rockslides in Canada and volcanoes in New Zealand.

And there was the moment in Nepal when they were surrounded by a large group of burly, long-haired yaks as they crossed a steel-cable suspension bridge over a rushing river about 1,000 feet below.

Still, none of those adventures created the unsettling, high level of danger that the Sinclairs experienced during their trek to the snow-covered summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, which rises 19,341 feet to the highest point on the African continent.

On the climb, the two teachers from Father Thomas Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis already had been concerned for the safety of their 27-year‑old son Ryan, who had come down with an acute case of altitude sickness that almost forced him to turn back. And now Dee Anne—who is 60—had collapsed in the ice-covered snow after waking up nauseous on the final day of the ascent.

For Paul—who is 67—the climb was shaping up as more than the ultimate physical challenge for him, Dee Anne, Ryan and their 28-year-old son, Brett. It was also shaping up as a challenge to his belief that God would be there for him and his family through anything.

A spiritual and personal quest

The connection of God to their adventures has been a longstanding one for the Sinclairs, ever since they took a monthlong honeymoon camping across the United States.

“As a Christian, it’s being able to experience the natural things that God has created,” says Paul, an art teacher at Scecina.

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro fit into that spiritual quest. The African adventure also involved a deeply personal connection for Paul. In doing research on his ancestry, he learned his roots extend to Tanzania, the country where Mount Kilimanjaro is located.

Spurred by that connection and the challenge of the climb, the Sinclairs applied for a 2018 grant from Lilly Endowment’s Teacher Creativity Fellowship program, a program that helps “educators to pursue their dreams and passions.” Both received $12,000 grants.

In filling out the application for the grant, the Sinclairs shared how they wanted to use the experience to “inspire their students to rise above the constraints of doubts, fears and social expectations to seek out their own passions and adventures.”

Their grant application also included Paul’s story of overcoming his challenging childhood, thanks to the influence of a teacher.

“Like most of his students, Paul did not come from a life of privilege,” their application noted. “He came from Chicago’s south side, rough and constraining. As a school boy from the projects, he did not dream of becoming a teacher, photographer, artist or traveler. But that changed when he was a student in Miss Rita Lohmeir’s class. She was a world traveler who shared her experiences with her students.

“She said, ‘Paul, you live in the projects, but the projects don’t live in you.’ The seed was now planted, and the growth of change began. Social statistics show that students are more inclined to remain in the same social environment as their parents. Paul’s passion for teaching is driven by a desire to change that. By presenting his students with cultural experiences that are different from what they know, Paul implores them to open their minds and consider possibilities.”

A science teacher at Scecina, Dee Anne had her own doubts to overcome. Reluctant to be daring in life, she decided to face her fears in a dramatic way in 2013—by committing to a 12-day trek to the Mount Everest Base Camp. Then 54, she hired a personal trainer and spent nine months training for the 17,598-foot climb with Paul.

“The Everest trek was completed,” their grant application noted. “The experiences of climbing above 17,000 feet, sleeping at the highest human settlement on Earth, overcoming oxygen deprivation, waking up to frozen water bottles and frozen contact lenses, five-day stretches without a shower, and dodging altitude sickness are enjoyable to share with students. But even more rewarding is sharing the many small steps it took to move beyond apprehension toward a resolute plan.”

Yet Dee Anne was a long way from joy and a sense of satisfaction when she collapsed in the ice-covered snow as guides led her family toward the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

A time of desperation and prayer

As the stars glowed in the darkness of that early morning in June 2018, Dee Anne got up from the snow. Her sons begged her to continue. Her body begged her to stop.

As the cold cut through the five layers of clothing that their hiking party wore, she somehow kept moving, although each step seemed achingly slow to her. All the time she fought the feeling that she was holding her family back and letting them and herself down.

Finally, after eight hours—two hours past the time the guides had hoped to arrive—the family of four stood together on the summit. Yet while they were united in the moment, they weren’t in emotion.

Paul was moved to tears when the guides congratulated him on his triumphant journey in his ancestors’ homeland, telling him, “Welcome home, brother, to your native motherland!”

Dee Anne was happy for her husband and her sons, but she was “so angry at the mountain,” she didn’t even look at the summit.

“It was bittersweet,” Paul recalls. “Once we got to the summit, I could tell Dee Anne was really beaten. And our older son was struggling.”

Still, Paul pulled the family together to share a prayer at the summit.

At the time, none of them knew all the prayers they would say during what would become a harrowing return trip.

‘It was in God’s hands’

They all struggled as they began their descent on the ice-covered mountain. At one point, Brett became so overwhelmed and sick that a rescue team had to be called.

The older son was strapped to a stretcher, and the emergency crew rushed him down the mountain to get him medical attention. While his brother Ryan joined that group on its frantic descent, the guides kept Paul and Dee Anne with them.

All the plans to stop at their base camp after seven hours were cast aside, replaced by an urgency to get to the bottom of the mountain. The guides decided there would be no stopping, not even for food—a plan that matched Paul and Dee Anne’s concern to know about Brett, to be with their sons as soon as possible.

Morning turned into afternoon, afternoon turned into night, and night turned into another morning. And still the trailing party that included Paul and Dee Anne pushed on.

They pushed on as they descended from the mountain and into a jungle. They pushed on as they wearily stumbled through the darkness of the jungle without headlamps. They pushed on through the screeching of the monkeys in the trees. They pushed on through the fog and the torrential rain.

And when they couldn’t push on anymore, the guides carried them on their backs for stretches.

All the time, Paul and Dee Anne worried about their sons. All the time, they prayed.

“From the very first step, I was always in some form of prayer,” Dee Anne says.

“Going through the jungle, my brain just kept repeating the 23rd Psalm,” Paul recalls. “It gave me peace. I said it was in God’s hands. It was one of those moments where you either have faith or you don’t.”

Their prayers were answered when their descent journey came to an end safely, about 24 hours after they had reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. The mutual joy that had eluded them at the summit suddenly overflowed through Paul and Dee Anne as they were reunited with Ryan and a now-healthy Brett.

“That was the moment of pure joy,” Paul says. “We saw our son, and he was OK. We were all safe. It was at that point where I relished what we did. We had set out to be challenged, and we were challenged. We came through it.”

The challenge also led to lessons to be shared—lessons about fear and faith.

“I hope the adventures continue,” Dee Anne says. “You can’t let weariness overcome you. You can’t let fear overcome you.”

Paul nods and adds, “When you’re in a situation where you know you have absolutely no control, and you have God to depend on, you can feel his peace.” †

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