Less than a week before her 10th birthday, Helen Simons "HS" Berenyi celebrated in a truly monumental way: She hiked to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa with her mother. The climb was the first for nonprofit organization She Climbs, founded by Helen's mother, Cokie Berenyi.
The mission of She Climbs is to build and strengthen the self-esteem of female individuals of all ages, one mountain climb at a time.
The team spent six days hiking the mountain, reaching the summit of 19,340 feet on Jan. 10. Helen is among the youngest females ever to reach the Mount Kilimanjaro summit. She and her mother were accompanied by friend Suzanne Peats of Ohio and her 11-year-old daughter, Alexis.
They averaged 9 to 10 miles a day, taking it slow in the beginning so everyone could adjust to the altitude changes. The descent back to the base of Mount Kilimanjaro National Park took just one day. Helen said some parts of the terrain were tough and, at times, she was cold as the temperatures dipped below zero.
But reaching the summit was really exciting, she said.
"I did it to show all ordinary 10-year-olds or kids of any age that they can do anything," Helen said.
Charleston natives, Berenyi and her husband Tony, own businesses here in the Lowcountry. Berenyi is the founder of investment firm Alphavest.com. Tony Berenyi is the president of Berenyi Inc., a structural, architectural, industrial design and construction management firm in Charleston. Together, they also founded Rein and Shine, an equine therapy facility that operates on their Awendaw farm.
The couple is temporarily living in Silverton, Colo., where their two daughters, Helen and 8-year-old Jackie, attend a very small school and the family is embracing small-town living.
Both Cokie and Tony Berenyi had worked hard building their businesses and keeping them going during the recession.
"In 2011, we felt it was time to dial it in and be a closer family with less pressures of city life," Cokie Berenyi said. Their little town of Silverton has no street lights and only one paved road, so it's definitely the close-knit community the Berenyi family wanted.
The move isn't long term and the family plans to return to Charleston as their girls begin to outgrow the offerings of a small school, Berenyi said.
"This has been an adventure of sorts and at an age that was suitable for the girls to transition," she added.
A life of climbing
Adventure is part of Berenyi's style. She's been climbing mountains for years, even loading a 2-year-old Helen on her back and climbing Table Rock in the Upstate. She continues to do at least one big climb a year mixed in with smaller domestic climbs. Berenyi has stood on the summit of Mount Rainier in Washington State and reached several mountain peaks in Bolivia. In addition to Mount Kilimanjaro, she's climbed Russia's highest mountain, Mount Elbrus, another of the seven summits (the highest peaks on the seven continents).
"I can't tell you how many climbs I've done and had women of all ages approach me and say, 'Please take me on a climb. I want to go climb a mountain with you,' " Berenyi said. "What's interesting is to know that there are so many women out there that, if they could do this, it would give them a fresh perspective and a new start."
Climbing a mountain is not only a physical challenge but a mental and emotional one. The idea of tackling a challenge like that is symbolic for any of life's obstacles.
For Berenyi, it's about standing at the base of the mountain and realizing she'd been at the top. "Every mountain climb, it still blows my mind," she said.
That sense of accomplishment can translate into everyday life, a key message of She Climbs as it instills the concepts of leadership and self-esteem in girls of all ages.
Even though 2014 marked the first official She Cimbs event, Berenyi founded the organization in 2006. It was an idea born of fear, she said.
"I had my second child late in 2005, another girl. Raising girls in this day and age ... I thought, 'What in the world do I do to help these girls?' I knew the key for them would be to build their self-esteem and self-confidence. If you could nail that with these girls, then half the battle would be won."
In 2009, Berenyi climbed Mount Elbrus in Russia, part of a research and development trip for She Climbs. The next year, she recruited an advisory board and developed leadership curriculum for participants. In 2011, Berenyi took another R&D trip to Bolivia and recruited to her She Climbs team Mandy Ramsden, the first South African woman to climb all seven summits.
At 10:08 a.m. Jan. 10, the research and planning paid off with the first climb up Mount Kilamanjaro, an event made even more special as Berenyi shared it with her daughter. Since their return, Berenyi and Helen discussed what a bonding experience the trip was for them.
"To be able to have all the pressures and cares of everyday life ripped away and only be worried about food and water and warmth and to just be together and experience (the climb), honestly, I couldn't have imagined the experience it brought us," Berenyi said.
Now Berenyi will turn her attention to providing a life-changing experience to more mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters and women of all ages. The groups will be small with one international climb and one domestic climb each year. She's hoping to organize a domestic climb this fall.
And sometimes the goal isn't even to reach the summit; sometimes it's just about the climb itself. "Part of She Climbs is having females of all ages explore 'What is my furthest limit? Can I go beyond that and have a good experience and translate that in my everyday life?' It's not always about summiting for all our climbers."
For more information about She Climbs and how to get involved as a climber, volunteer or sponsor, visit she-climbs.org.