In 2004, Laura Hartstone was living and working in Tanzania with an organization helping to battle the continent's most pressing issue: HIV/AIDS. Every day she would walk to a secondary school, teach in the morning, and then in the afternoon walk further into the village to teach a small community group. One day she was asked by one of the mamas to go and see her nephew, who was ill.
It turned out that the young boy, about age five, had a fungal infection on his head. So ashamed and embarrassed by it, he wore a hooded sweatshirt covering his head despite the hot African heat. The mama had already taken him to the hospital and found out the type of medication he needed - but couldn't afford it.
Laura decided that just this once, she would go get the meds. She asked all her friends to pitch in, and had about $65 when she went to the pharmacy. The pharmacist handed her the package and told her it would be 1000 shillings. She stared at him in shock. 1000 shillings at the time was about the equivalent of 75 cents. When she realized that's what the woman couldn't afford, she also realized the impact a small effort can have.
Laura wanted to increase her personal impact by supporting already established organizations that struggle with funding. Right around this time, she met Chloe Chick, an Australian working in the same town who was also searching for a way to support grassroots organizations.
The two energetic women quickly came up with their idea: to bring together a group of their girl friends and climb three of Africa's highest peaks in less than three weeks. They would call the challenge "3 Peaks 3 Weeks." The purpose was to raise awareness and funds in support of three of the most critical issues Africans face: education, environment and health.
"It's the challenge," Laura explains. "It's about getting out there and doing something you normally wouldn't have gone for - out of your comfort zone. The team element helps to make this possible, more enjoyable and long-lasting."
And why only women? "There is a bond that all-female groups make and it is one that is best discovered by joining a climb.... it's hard to explain," Laura says. "But as groups of only women – it feels like we can achieve anything!"
By January 2005, Laura and Chloe had a team of women to meet their challenge. They had no website, no knowledge of how to make one, and no funds with which to do so. They had no bank accounts to keep the money in. Many of the women found it difficult to raise $10, much less the $250,000 that was their collective goal.
Training presented an additional challenge. They were not a group of mountaineers; they were ordinary women, most of whom had never climbed a mountain before. But over the next two years, they learned together – mostly through trial and error. They had endless calls with experts, joined gyms, hit the trail, and most importantly, never gave up, even when they were told their feat was impossible or would be too much of a struggle.
In January 2007, Laura, Chloe and their group became the first all-female team to summit three of Africa's highest peaks in three weeks. They raised over $385,000 for three organizations in East Africa. As they walked the final steps off the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro they felt an amazing sense of accomplishment and a bittersweet sadness that it was all ending.
But then women across the world began contacting them, urging them to organize another challenge. These women had heard about the project from medi coverge and from word of mouth. There was also a full-length documentary that was filmed and shown at film festivals across the world, on adventure sports channel Rush HD, and even on Singapore Airlines in their flight entertainment system!
Laura and Chloe began running 3 Peaks 3 Weeks as an annual event. Since that first climb in 2007, 44 women have participated in four annual 3 Peaks 3 Weeks Challenges. "We have the most incredible women join our treks," says Laura. "Each and every one of them has had something powerful to offer." The women have ranged in age from 20 to 63, and hailed from Australia, Canada, France, England, Ireland, Scotland and the United States. They've been mothers, doctors, bankers and students.
These women tend to have two things in common - none have been huge mountaineers - and all of them struggle to fundraise. It's part of the challenge, and Laura and Chloe provide training and support to all of them as part of the project. With hundreds of supporters, they've raised and distributed over $685,000 to five nonprofit organizations in East Africa (they will soon be expanding to support more than 8 additional organizations).
Laura describes the impact running these challenges has had on her personally. "It's incredibly moving from two different angles," she says. "The first is not one I thought I'd find, but it's so moving to see our climbers become new, more confident women."
And the second angle involves the difference the donated funds make for girls and women in the communities that are served by the supported nonprofits. "I have seen girls that were 10 years old, just entering school and very shy, now turned into incredible young women," explains Laura. One such girl, named Julieth, welcomed Laura and her group into her poverty-stricken home this past year. Julieth shared with them her top female role models, including Oprah Winfrey, Condoleeza Rice, and all of the women who have been climbers on 3 Peaks 3 Weeks.
In December 2010 Laura and Chloe took the next step in developing their vision by establishing the Peaks Foundation, which offers mountain climbing challenges all over the world. Their aim is to motivate, inspire and empower women worldwide to set their sights high and reach their highest potential, not only through the mountain-based challenges that they organize but also through the organizations they support that work with local communities.
Through the Peaks Foundation they will continue to raise funds for effective organizations who lack critical funding and who provide opportunities and advancement for women and girls in developing areas.
In Laura's mind, they're just getting started with the impact they can have at both a global and a local level. "I most look forward to the challenges that we cannot organize today," she says. "Challenges in areas that are currently war-torn and unstable. Once we hold challenges in those places, and see local women in those places engaging in activities to become economically stable and independent, we will have succeeded."