By the time this Tucson Weekly goes to press, Martha Gilliland will have a week or so to go before she's slated to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro on June 26. The 63-year-old geophysicist, environmental engineer and former UA vice provost left last week to fulfill a 45-year-old dream of hers to climb the Tanzanian mountain. At the same time, she's raising money for a new love--literacy. Gilliland is a volunteer tutor with Literacy Volunteers of Tucson. In honor of Gilliland's climb, she's asking that donations be made to LVT by going to its Web site .
Why did you decide to become a literacy volunteer?
I was interested in helping people learn to read, especially native speakers who just got left behind in the school system. Without the skills to read, it is difficult to move forward and contribute to society. It is also a bad thing in our democracy. We need to have a population that can read the newspaper and think about their place in the world.
When did you start working with LVT?
I am fairly new at it--I got trained and started in February. I have a friend that is on the board, and I was at their breakfast. I was inspired to volunteer when I saw that this was an organization that had its act together. A small staff works with hundreds of volunteers. When you look at organizations to donate to or volunteer with, it is important to make sure they use their money efficiently--and they do.
Why has it become important to you?
First, the training opened my eyes to the number of people who need help. There are 14 percent of people in our country who are illiterate. To me, that is shocking. For the person I tutor, it is very hard for her, but she is very motivated. Her parents didn't read, and she is one of those people who didn't learn to read. She has children now, and she can't read to them, and she wants to help them with their homework.
How did you come up with the idea of merging your trip to Mount Kilimanjaro and raising money for LVT?
Literacy is a big mountain for these people to climb, and this is the mountain I am going to climb. I have a fear of what I will face, but these people face fear just to get on the phone and ask us for help, or fill out papers at work or look for a job. This is a small way that I can live out my dream, and help others with their dreams, too.
How will you raise the money?
I got this idea: You've probably been asked to support someone (with) a dollar a mile in a walk. That model exists out there, and I thought, "I'm very blessed in order to do this." I sent out about 200 e-mails to friends and acquaintances and asked them to make a donation. I'm going to print out a list of all the people who have donated online before I climb, and I'm going to carry them in my pocket and pull them out when I need inspiration. This will be difficult, and I'm counting on that list to inspire me to take the next 100 steps.
Did you train to get ready for the climb?
I'm 63, so I had to be careful not to train too fast. I have been doing a program since January, six days a week. I've been bicycling ... then hiking, of course, and interval running. This mountain is 19,400 feet. Oxygen levels are low, and at the top, it's about 5 degrees. I want to make it to the summit, but not many people who try actually get to the top.
Why Mount Kilimanjaro?
I've always wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro since I was 18. When I was studying geology and volcanoes, I wanted to get up to that mountain. But back then, I hadn't even been on a plane, and I'd never left the country. Not long ago, I thought about it, but I thought I was too old, and then I started looking into it, and thought it possible.
What made it possible at 63 and not at 18?
When I was 18, it wasn't possible for women. That kind of travel was not a context for someone in 1963 to think about. ... I've come a long way. The world has come a long way, but especially for women. It's a celebration--a big celebration.
Are you really scared?
I'm the most fit I've ever been, but as you age, you lose the ability to get your heart rate high, so in cardio training, I had some limitations. Hopefully, because I'm older, I also have more mental strength. What's the worst thing that could happen? That I died without trying.