Four South Florida women make steps to end human trafficking

After Tina Yeager spent four days in freezing temperatures climbing to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, she didn’t think she’d ever want to see another mountain.

But on Sunday, she and other 44 women from across the world flew to Nepal to climb Mount Everest.

The reason: a fight against human trafficking.

“When I climbed Kilimanjaro, it was so bad I said I would never do it again,” said Yeager, 44, director of Freedom Climb in the United States. “But it’s not about the climbing; it’s that we are helping children and women around the world.”

Yeager, of Deerfield Beach, along with Debbie Dingle, 49, of Boca Raton; Jill Taylor, 51, of Pompano Beach; and Jen Klaassens, 39, of Miami, are representing South Florida in the Freedom Climb, organized by the international evangelical organization Operation Mobilization.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center reported a total of 19,427 calls related to human trafficking in the United States in 2011. Florida ranked third, with 7.1 percent of the calls.

To participate in the climb, each woman has to pay her way and raise $10,000 that will go to international projects that work on human trafficking prevention, rescue and rehabilitation, and community development. Each climber has a link for donations on the Freedom Climb website. They also organized their own fundraising events, and spread the message with fliers and social media posts. Three of them exceeded the goal and the fourth is close to reaching it.

Last year’s climb raised $350,000.

In addition to the United States, this year’s climb participants come from South Africa, Moldova, the United Kingdom, Brazil, the Middle East, the Philippines, Canada, India, Germany, Madagascar and Australia.

The youngest climber is 25; the oldest is 63.

“This would not be as successful if it was just one person from South Florida climbing,” said Klaassens. “That’s really the reason why I’m part of it, to raise awareness for this cause.”

Dingle, a baton twirling coach, climbed Kilimanjaro with Yeager for last year’s Freedom Climb.

They climbed throughout the night, with only their headlamps as a source of light. The darkness stuck in Dingle’s memories.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and it just made me kind of really feel how it must feel for these woman and children when they are working in these horrible conditions, getting beaten up. They have no rights,” she said.

They prayed for the sun to come out.

“So many of these women who are enslaved in sex trafficking suffer night after night. We struggled for one night on that mountain,” said Dingle. “Even if it is one woman at a time, we need to give these women some hope.”

Dingle stopped at 18,000 feet, but Yeager continued to the top of the mountain, higher than 19,000 feet.

“We cried when we thought of why we were there,” said Yeager. “We were excited and exhausted.”

To prepare for this year’s climb, the four women walk along the bridges at 17th Street and Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale –– some of the highest elevations they can find in South Florida.

They exercise at least 10 hours per week wearing their boots and backpacks with 15 or 20 pounds of extra weight. They also train using the higher inclines on the elliptical at the gym and Klaassens has forsaken the elevator at her condo, instead climbing the18 flights of stairs.

“It’s kind of difficult being at sea level,” said Taylor. “You just attempt to get yourself in better shape as possible because once you get there, hiking is everyday.”

The climb to Mount Everest will take 12 days –– eight up and four down –– with one or two opportunities to shower.

They bring clothes, water, snacks, rain gear, camera and toilet paper in their backpacks. They will divide in three groups of 14 and 15. Two porters carrying the tents and food lead each group. A doctor and two nurses will accompany the women.

Mount Everest is 29,029 feet, but the women will go up to 18,190 feet.

“It is a tremendous challenge –– physically, emotionally and mentally,” said Taylor. “My greatest fear is altitude sickness and the cold temperatures at night. I hope I have packed sufficient gear to stay warm and sleep well in preparation for the next day’s journey.”

They will also visit some of the Operation Mobilization’s projects in Nepal. Children at Risk provides assistance for the education expenses of children of HIV-infected parents, and AIDS Care provides housing for people living with HIV.

“The most exciting thing about the climb itself is being among such an amazing group of women that are so passionate about the cause,” said Yeager. “We climb knowing that every step we take is a step toward the freedom of these children and women.”

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