- Associated Press - Saturday, November 22, 2014

FALL RIVER, Mass. (AP) - As an avid climber with more than 20 years of experience, Melanie Levesque has always dreamed of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. This December, she will not only live that dream, but help cancer patients in the process.

On Dec. 8, Levesque, 44, will begin a week-long climb of the 19,341-foot-high Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. She will use the expedition to raise money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (through the Jimmy Fund) as part of the “Climb For Life” fundraiser.

Married and the mother of two teens, she said she was inspired to help this cause by the memory of her own mother, who died from cancer 16 years ago. Levesque said the experience was extremely hard on her family and cancer has remained personal.

“There were lots of charities that you can climb for, but I really wanted it to be closer to home, where my friends and family would go if they had cancer,” she said.

Levesque, a horticulturist at Sylvan Nursery in Westport, sent a proposal to Dana-Farber earlier in the year, and was officially endorsed by the organization in April.

“We were so excited that someone was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for us,” Jimmy Fund Special Events Development Officer Kerry Sachs said.

Sachs said special events such as the Climb For Life have not only brought in millions of dollars for Dana Farber every year but also helped spread the word about its mission. “We’re hugely reliant on our volunteer fundraisers,” she said.

Levesque said she was in her early 20s when she climbed Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire with a friend. “I have been hooked ever since. I still climb Monadnock at least once a year and always try to bring someone new to the sport with me hoping some of the love will rub off,” she said.

While some are converts, “mostly I just hear a lot of swearing behind me,” she said.

Over the past decade, her commitment has grown, she said. “I have really gotten more serious … taking time to plan adventures that most would say are crazy. Like hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim in 111 degrees.”

Said Levesque, “Now a hot day at work is a piece of cake. Hiking and climbing in extremes makes you appreciate the every-day comforts we all take for granted … like having a pillow or putting on dry socks.”

Levesque admitted that her friends and family members were initially nervous about her upcoming expedition. “They were concerned at first,” she said. “They’ve come along, and now they all support me.”

To raise funds for Dana-Farber, Levesque set up the website climbforlife2014.com. Anyone interested in contributing can put put together a group to go on a hike. There is a minimum donation of $20 per hiker.

Levesque assesses the group’s ability and picks out a hike for them. Her goal was to raise $10,000 and as of Saturday night, she had topped that, with a total of $10,119 pledged. “The climbers have inspired me to keep going,” she said.

Anyone interested in donating who cannot go on a hike can donate any amount through a PayPal link on the site.

To prepare for her Kilimanjaro climb, Levesque has undergone a training regimen in which she gets up at 5 every morning to use the gym and hikes 8 to 12 miles every weekend.

Levesque said every climb is a spiritual journey for her.

“It’s never about reaching the top, it’s about what you learn along the way,” she said.

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