I think we all thought the summit was the goal, and really that wasn’t it. The goal turned out to be community, and that became so much more important than the summit. — Kari Kirkland
On March 3, a team of living donors, friends and family took their first steps on a journey to the top of the world. Their destination: the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Their goal: to share their stories and promote the lifesaving gift of living donation.
Brought together through Living Donor Adventures, most of the group were strangers to each other before the climb. But over the seven nights and eight days that followed, as they faced the physical and mental challenges of an arduous journey to the 19,341-foot summit, they became more than friends. They became a family.
“It was this bond, this team, this family that we all participated in creating,” says group organizer and kidney donor Bobby McLaughlin.
In 2022, more than 6,500 people became living organ donors, offering an incomparable, lifesaving gift to a family member, a friend, a neighbor, a co-worker, even a stranger. There’s no one reason why someone chooses to become a living donor, but often they’ll say that when they opportunity arose, they “just knew,” without hesitation, that it was a choice they wanted to make. Mt. Kilimanjaro climber and living donor Kari Kirkland says her decision was made when she saw a Facebook post from a friend in need of a kidney. “The second that I saw that post, I somehow knew that it was going to be me,” says Kirkland. “I somehow knew that I was going to be a match.”
With nearly 90,000 people on the waiting list for a kidney and more than 10,000 on the waiting list for a liver in the U.S., Living Donor Adventures seeks to raise awareness about living donation—and offer a way for living donors to connect and build community. For some of the climbers, like kidney and liver donor Tom O’Driscoll, the Mt. Kilimanjaro adventure became their first opportunity to meet fellow living donors. “I was so looking forward to meeting fellow organ donors, because I hadn’t been around any at home,” he says.
As the Mt. Kilimanjaro trek grew more physically demanding, as it challenged the climbers each in their own way, they supported each other to reach their shared goal. Bobby Mclaughlin notes what he saw as “the collective positive energy people had on display for each other, the pure love and joy people poured into each other.” Adds Kari Kirkland, “I think we all thought the summit was the goal, and really that wasn’t it. The goal turned out to be community, and that became so much more important than the summit.”
The final push to reach that summit began before midnight; hours later, watching the sun rise from atop the tallest mountain on the African continent was a powerful moment of accomplishment–in climber and living kidney donor Lindsay Gutierrez’s words, “almost indescribable.”
Yet in that moment, “More than celebrating the summit, we were celebrating life, and celebrating each other, and celebrating that we were all together,” says Kirkland. “That was so much more powerful than I expected.”