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Project Athena – the beauty of both giving and receiving

October 7, 2009

LDSC_0112I’ve just returned from my Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim hike with Project Athena.  I’ve posted daily reports about the hike on, so if you’d like to find out more about the actual hiking trip, please take a look at that.  Here, I am trying to put into words what Project Athena is actually doing – and that is really hard to do, because this charitable foundation is operating on so many different levels.

Officially, this Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim hike was a fund-raising trip.  All together, the participants fund-raised $15,000, and all of that money will go to supporting future “athenaship” recipients: helping women who suffer serious life-altering medical conditions to achieve their athletic dreams.   What those future grant recipients will get out of Project Athena is far more than just a paid-for adventure.
Athenaship recipients are women who have literally had their world and their sense of identity fragmented by serious illness.  Being awarded an athenaship gives them something to strive for: a new goal in life, and a training schedule, with mentorship and coaching provided by the Project Athena founders team.  But what follows their athenaship is even more powerful – and I have seen this in Sara Jones who ran in Costa Rica, and Kerrie Larson-Kerkman who raced the Great Wall of China Marathon, and now Sandy Kilburg who completed this hike.  They emerge with a new sense of confidence, that they can set big goals for their future, and strive to achieve them, and even be role models or mentors to LDSC_0085other people along the way, too.  Instead of being identified as simply a “survivor”, they emerge strong and driven and confident, with new ideas and goals of who to be and how to be.

However, the official grant recipients are not the only ones who benefit from this energy.  What I saw along the way is that pretty much every man and woman who participated in this journey became an athenaship recipient.  I felt this very strongly when I raced the Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica this past February.  I went down there on my own, facing this big challenge that I wasn’t even sure was within my abilities to complete, and the women of Project Athena invited me into their circle.  I completed my goal, which meant so much to me – but I did it with their help and support.  And I learned, LDSC_0121and am still learning, that accepting help to achieve your goal can be more powerful than just doing it all alone.

This week, I hiked the Grand Canyon with men and women who are cancer survivors, who have life-altering illnesses such as arthritis and degenerative spinal disease, who have recovered from car accidents, who have regained control of their lives by conquering addictions to hard drugs, alcohol and tobacco, who have turned their lives around by losing weight and becoming more active, who have recently lost loved ones to cancer or are undergoing emotional turmoil in their personal lives – yet all are pushing forward with new challenges rather than wallowing in sadness or self-pity.  Every man and woman that I got to know on this trip has surmounted difficulties in their own lives, yet has chosen a path in their own life that includes both setting challenges for themselves (and striving to meet them), as well as helping others along the way.  LDSC_0140

In the pre-dawn darknes of our second morning, we all huddled in a tight little circle at the lip of the canyon’s North Rim as the chilly wind whipped around us, and Melissa Cleary told us about the foundation’s next grant recipient: a young woman named Kesha.  Kesha suffers from severe depression; at times, she feels that running is all that she has in her life to keep her going.  Her dream is to qualify for the Boston Marathon.  Melissa, who has not yet met Kesha face to face, was in tears as she told us Kesha’s story – and Melissa will be the one working with Kesha to help her achieve her dream.

It is really hard to put into words everything that Project Athena is – but I can just say that it really does incorporate LDSC_0105many elements of what successful adventure racing (AR) teams are all about, too:

Project Athena is about physically challenging yourself so that you can build the confidence to push yourself harder and expect more out of every aspect of your life.  It is also about looking out for others, and being gentle and kind and supportive, and feeling the joy of helping someone along their path in life.  And it is about accepting help, too, about learning to put those egos away and take a hand that is offered to you.  And these are really all the things that AR is about too – what makes it so different from other more individual sports (and so hard to explain to people from outside our AR community) – so it is no wonder that Project Athena was initated by a group of adventure athletes.

If you are interested in supporting Project Athena’s mission of helping women, one by one, in their journey to find something to strive for following serious illness, you can become a donor to Project Athena, or you can become a fund-raiser and attend Project Athena’s next Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim hike, which will take place next June 2-6, 2010.  I hope to be there again!  For details, visit the Project Athena website.

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