It’s not very often that one gets an opportunity to trek Everest, but Saskatchewan resident Denise Heppner has the opportunity to do just that. The 39-year-old mother of three will be leaving her family and hometown of Waldheim in April, to join 43 other women from around the world in the Freedom Climb – an opportunity to stand up and be the voice for those who are enslaved, oppressed, exploited, and trafficked everyday.
Participants of the Freedom Climb will trek 17,598 feet to the Everest Base Camp, and 18,192 feet onto summit Kalaphatar, in the Nepalese Himalayas. Rooted in religious teachings, the climb hopes to allow women who have “experienced the love and power of God” to “take up the challenge to be a voice” for the struggling children and women around the world.
The Carillon chatted with Heppner about her upcoming climb, and the lessons she’s already learned preparing for her adventure.
The Carillon: Why did you decide to do the Freedom Climb? What was your motivation for it?
Heppner: It was the trek itself that first grabbed my attention. I have come through so much – abuse, addiction, obesity – and I wanted to be able to share what God’s love has done in my life…I wanted to do this for everyone who has gone through similar things, who have been broken, or bullied, or even just lacks confidence in themselves. I wanted to climb this mountain for those who are suffering, to show that God loves you and He will stand by you and give you strength as you climb your own mountains.
The next layer of my purpose came from study into the horrors of human trafficking. Over the years, I have heard about [many great causes] and have wanted to give. Often the form sits on my desk waiting for me. Sometimes, the enormity of suffering, and the millions of people that need help would actually make my mind glaze over. I would put [the idea] out of my mind and get on with the everyday things where I could make an immediate difference [in the lives of those around me].
For some reason, the Freedom Climb grabbed me by the heart and shook me awake. Each one of these millions is a real person who is suffering. By helping one person at a time I thought maybe, just maybe, I could make a difference.
The Carillon: How does trekking through mountains help those who are oppressed?
Heppner: The purpose of hiking is not just about climbing a mountain; it’s about helping people. The climb itself is a symbolic gesture of what these women and children go through everyday. It symbolizes their difficult climb to freedom.
The Carillon: Why is the Freedom Climb only an opportunity for women?
Heppner: The majority of those caught in human trafficking are women and children. For those of us who are blessed to live as we do, this is an opportunity to stand up and speak for those who have no voice and for those whose lives are not their own.
The Carillon: Do you think the climb will be more challenging emotionally than physically because of what the Freedom Climb represents?
Heppner: Yes, definitely. The preparation for this has already been extremely emotional and heart breaking. I started reading about women and children in developing countries who are so poor – sometimes parents sell their children because they can’t afford to look after them, or to pay a debt. Some think they are sending them to a better life and don’t know the horrible reality of where they end up.
I read about children my daughter’s age … beaten, raped, burned, forced to work for 14 hours a day, starved to death. I read about young women who are tricked by false advertising for domestic workers … and once they reach their destination, find a totally different life waiting for them. They are beaten, threatened, stripped of their passports and identification, and forced to take drugs, forced to have sex, absolutely heartbreaking.
Traffickers are very manipulative and make their victims think that this is the only thing that they are good at and good for. There is often a great deal of violence, or threats of violence to people that they love. [These victims] are shamed and isolated.
The Carillon: Trafficking tends to be an interntional problem. What role does Canada have to play in the issue?
Heppner: [Canada is] classified as a destination country for human trafficking from other countries…In Canada, as many as 15,000 people become victims of human trafficking every year.
If we look at prevention, it involves education and public awareness. Education is one of our greatest weapons. The more our youth know, the safer they are. Our young women need to know that criminals are on the hunt for their prostitution rings right here in our own backyards.
I recently got an email from a girl I knew in high school who is now living in Regina. [She said:] “Thank you, Denise, for doing this climb. This is dear to my heart. I wish I had it in me to do it as well. My daughter (she is just turning 18), has been trafficked here in our city since she was 14 years old, [she] was pregnant at 14 because much older men paid people to have sex with [her]. I have lost her since to addiction and she continues to be trafficked by males to now support her addiction. I want to commend you for doing this for our children. Not enough words can express how grateful I am to you and others to bring awareness to this. It happens all over the world, but people are blind that it happens right here in our country, province and our cities. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
No one ever thinks that this will happen to their child. We need to open our eyes. We need to reach out.
The Carillon: How did your friends and family react when you told them you were doing this?
Heppner: They were excited and super supportive. I have been blown away by the love, encouragement and support that has been given to help me raise funds to help these women and children who are suffering. The ideas, the time and energy spent, the materials donated, the funds given, the outpouring of generosity, has been absolutely amazing.
The Carillon: The Freedom Climb is very much rooted in spiritual and religious teaching. How do you see religion playing into this?
Heppner: Throughout Scripture, mountains seem to be God’s select spots to speak revelation and vision to His people. When we stand on the top of the mountain in Nepal, we will be declaring life and freedom for those who cannot speak for themselves.
[For example,] Proverbs 31: 8-9 says, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. Speak up for the poor and helpless and see that they get justice.”
As we unconditionally serve one another humbly in love, we will be loving each other as God loves us, and ensuring justice [and] restoring self-worth and human dignity to those it has been stripped from.
The Carillon: For those who aren't religious or spiritual, what role do they play in the climb?
Heppner: You do not need to be religious or spiritual to want to help others. All you need to do is stand up, be a voice, and take action. It is everyday people who will change the world.
Photo courtesy of Denise Heppner