Broward County

Broward woman climbs Mt. Kilimanjaro to save girls enslaved by sex traffickers

Ginger Martin, president and CEO of American National Bank in Oakland Park, shows off all her climbing gear. Martin climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in March -- 19,341 feet -- to raise awareness and funds for girls enslaved by sex traffickers. Her group raised more than $800,000 for their cause. Said the 57-year-old Martin: "It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life yet I'm so glad I didn't miss it.''
Ginger Martin, president and CEO of American National Bank in Oakland Park, shows off all her climbing gear. Martin climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in March -- 19,341 feet -- to raise awareness and funds for girls enslaved by sex traffickers. Her group raised more than $800,000 for their cause. Said the 57-year-old Martin: "It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life yet I'm so glad I didn't miss it.'' ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Ginger Martin remembers the exact moment that led her to Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa.

She was in Colorado on a relatively easier climb — seven 14,000-feet peaks over four days in the Rockies — when one of the women on the trip showed a video, talking about how the climbers were raising funds to rescue girls held as sex slaves.

The video was set to music. The song: Do Something by Matthew West. The lyrics: “I woke up this morning. Saw a world full of trouble now. Thought, how’d we ever get so far down. … People living in poverty. Children sold into slavery. ... So, I shook my fist at Heaven. Said, “God, why don’t You do something?

“He said, “I did. I created you.“

Martin’s voice breaks as she tells the story, her head shaking: “That’s what grabbed my heart, broke it. At that moment, I remember saying, ‘Hey, I am going to do something.’ 

In March, Martin, 57, an Oakland Park banker by day, scaled Kilimanjaro in Tanzania on Africa’s East Coast — at 19,341 feet, the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. The 20-person group, ages 23 to 70, raised $800,000 — money used to rescue, empower and educate girls enslaved by sex traffickers. The girls, some as young as preteens, are routinely beaten, drugged and raped; Miami-Dade is one of the country’s top trafficking markets, up there with Las Vegas.

“It is a myth that these are all foreign girls,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, whose office began prosecuting sex traffickers in 2012 and is now working on more than 300 cases. “This has to do with our local girls — girls fleeing abuse in their homes, runaways, our throwaways.”

Martin’s climb took six nights/seven days. Eighteen climbers finished. Temperatures were below freezing. And the final ascent to the summit didn’t start until 11:30 p.m., with the headlamp-clad climbers reaching Gilman’s Point, at 18,638 feet, six hours later. They got there as the sun rose.

“On my gosh, the pictures were just unbelievable,” Martin gushed.

They weren’t done; the summit — 19,341 feet at Uhuru Peak — lay two hours ahead of them.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, yet I’m so glad I didn’t miss it,” says Martin, already making plans for a 2016 climb to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Martin made the trek through Freedom Climb, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering girls and women around the globe, giving them the financial, psychological and educational tools needed to climb out of abject poverty and enslavement. The $800,000 funded 50 projects in 30 countries.

Freedom Climb made its debut in January 2012 when 42 women from seven countries climbed Kilimanjaro, raising $70,000. Today, Freedom Climb, which recently broadened its mission to include women runners, swimmers, cyclists, triathletes and any other women who create their own fitness challenge, has raised more than $3 million.

“I started learning about Freedom Climb and the projects they have around the globe, and I fell in love with it,” said Debbie Dingle of Boca Raton, who went on the first climb in 2012. Since then, she’s climbed Everest Base Camp (2013), Pike’s Peak and the Seven Summits in Colorado (2014) and back to Kilimanjaro in March. (This time, men were invited and Dingle took her husband.)

Dingle learned of Freedom Climb through her church, Advent Lutheran of Boca Raton, when one of the group’s founders talked to the congregants. She listened but wasn’t interested.

“I don’t like to be cold. I don’t like to throw up, and all of those things are included in climbing Mount Kilimanjaro,” said Dingle, 52, who has run marathons and triathlons.

But she began to think about it, prayed, and researched Freedom Climb. She learned about one woman who was rescued and began making bracelets. When one of the Freedom Climbers gave Dingle a bracelet, “that sealed the deal right there.”

“You realize it’s not about you,” Dingle said. “When you take yourself out of the equation, it really empowers you to do something for somebody else.”

She trained on the 17th Street Causeway in Fort Lauderdale. Up and down over the bridge. Boots on her feet, backpack on her back. She filled the pack with 20 pounds of rice to simulate the weight she would carry. (Guides do the heavy lifting; climbers carry their daily water supply, snacks and hiking garb.)

Dingle met Martin last year at the Seven Summit climb in Colorado. At that point, Martin wasn’t committed to Kilimanjaro. The degree of difficulty. Taking two weeks off from her job as president and CEO of American National Bank, a family-owned bank in Oakland Park. Most daunting: Asking people for money — each climber had to raise at least $50,000.

“That number scared me,” she said. “My initial response was, I’ll write a check. I mean, I’ll write a big check. But, man, I don’t want to ask people for money.”

Then she saw Dingle’s video.

She came back from Colorado and talked to a mentor, who persuaded her to let others decide whether they wanted to donate. She went to her boss first — 92-year-old Richard Ingham, the bank’s owner. He quickly signed on, giving her $5,000 from the bank as a corporate sponsor and $5,000 personally. He also gave her two weeks off without charging vacation time.

Martin’s enthusiasm bubbled over to others. Soon, bank customers, employees and friends were chipping in — $10 here, $20 there.

“It’s been kind of a neat thing,” said Timothy Ingham, the bank’s board chairman and Richard’s youngest son. “She really got the support of the bank, from the customers, to the employees, to the board and the company. She has a way of getting people excited about things.”

In the end, Martin raised $63,000 — $13,000 more than the minimum.

Next up: training. Martin found a Broward County park — Vista View in Davie — that had been a former landfill. It had rolling hills, perfect for hiking up and down. She also walked on the beach — a lot.

She didn’t begin training until the end of November. Day One of Kilimanjaro was Feb. 28.

“I kept procrastinating; I wasn’t sure whether I was really going,” she said.

Looking back, Martin says she learned rich lessons from the climb.

For one, overcoming fear — especially after one of her teammates got altitude sickness and had to be taken down the mountain. Another turned back two hours into the summit ascent.

“Every night I would lie in the tent and had to face my fears: What’s tomorrow going to bring? Am I going to be able to do this? What if I get sick? What if I don’t make it?”

What kept her going was thinking about the women and children she was trying to help: “You overcome fear by believing in something bigger than yourself.”

And you accomplish things in life with a team, she added. The climbers had guides who carried their gear and coaxed them up the mountain. Nor did Martin want to disappoint those who supported her, both emotionally and financially.

Sometimes the steps were small. On the steepest part of the mountain, climbing to the top, Martin’s guide, Tito, reassured her they were moving.

“I could look at that two ways. From a humorous standpoint, he’s telling me I’m moving because I’m going so slowly and he just wanted to reinforce the fact that I really was moving,” she says, laughing. “The more serious version is, ‘Hey, no matter how slow you’re going, if you’re taking one more step, you’re moving. And if you’re moving, then you’re going toward your goal.’ 

Finally, there were times she wanted to quit.

Like the night they left to scale the summit, leaving Kibo Hut and the warmth of their tents at 11.30. (They leave at night so they can get to the top by early the next day, as the weather gets more volatile the later you are on the mountaintop. Plus, it takes four to five hours to get back to base camp.)

“On the summit night, I wanted to quit,” Martin said. “I remember saying to myself, ‘Man, I’m tired. I’m cold. I’m exhausted.’ But in my head, I would say to myself: I’m going to take one more step, one more step for one child, for one woman, for one life.”

And she was reminded of a phrase that everyone who scales Kilimanjaro knows: Pole. Pole.

Pronunced Polay Polay, it’s Swahili for “Go slowly.”

“So when I think about life, and sometimes how we’re in such a big hurry, I think of that.”

Her takeaway?

Pace yourself. On the mountain. And in life.

Pole. Pole.

Freedom Climb

The next excursion will take place from July 31 to Aug. 5, 2016, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It’s open to women climbers and cyclists. There will be three levels of hikes: beginner, intermediate and advanced. The cost of the trip is $795, which includes all lodging, food and transportation to and from the trailheads and airport. Airfare is not included. Every participant is asked to raise $5,000, with a minimum of $2,500 to participate. For more information, go to fundraise.omusa.org or email Ginger Martin at gmartin@americannationalbank.com

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