Kilimanjaro. Everest. Annapurna. Machu Picchu.

Each of these locations is a dream destination on bucket lists around the globe. The goal of reaching these exotic mountaintops may seem beyond your grasp. But Trekking for Kids is helping dreams come true—changing the lives of adventurers and orphans all over the world. 

As if planting your feet on the summit of Kilimanjaro isn’t epic enough, that moment can now be even more life changing. A Trekking for Kids expedition combines the high adventure of hiking to an iconic destination with love, service, and authentic cultural experiences. Instead of taking a vacation merely for the prospect of pretty pictures, you can make a difference in the lives of orphans in need of hope—and you can find a new perspective of the world around you. As you leave your footprints across the earth by helping some of its most needy inhabitants, your travels will start leaving footprints of their own on your heart.

Finding the Right Footing

Trekking for Kids, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC, started as a simple idea during a conversation over dinner in 2005. Ana Maria Montero and her brother José were discussing plans for an upcoming trip up the Incan Trail when they realized that their vacation could be more than just another thrilling hike. They began searching for ways to serve the community near the Andes, and their father, Pepe, inspired them to search for orphanages in Cusco. Pepe had lost his parents years earlier during the Spanish Civil War. Knowing about their father’s own childhood hardships, the Montero siblings understood that the best way to help Peru would be to help its children. José and Ana Maria found an orphanage that provided care for disabled children, and they quickly turned their dream of hiking to Machu Picchu into a more gratifying two-part project. 

The Monteros’ love of children and hiking was contagious among their friends, and before long, many people were helping to organize the trek up the Incan Trail. Companies like Recreation Outlet and Brandfire provided donations for the trekkers and the orphans. The Monteros and their band of friends raised more than $16,000 to spend on improving the orphanage. 

When the group finally set off for that first trip to Peru, they took with them braille typewriters, toys, and clothing for more than 100 blind and deaf children. After a few days of playing Santa Claus with the orphans and working to improve the orphanage, the trekkers let the children enjoy the new toys and supplies while they hiked to the ruins of the Incas in Machu Picchu. Little did the hikers realize that this excursion would become the inaugural trip of an organization destined to change the lives of many more adventurers and orphans around the world. 

Fastening into Strong Footholds

Since that maiden Incan Trail trek, every trek still follows the same pattern and entails both segments: visiting and working at an orphanage and then parting ways with the children to hike some of the most awe-inspiring mountains in the world. Long before trekkers arrive in the country, both the orphanage and the trekkers are preparing for the trip. Every participant is required to raise $1,000 that will be used in its entirety to fund improvement projects at the orphanage. Before the trekkers even meet the children, the orphanages use the donated money to hire local laborers to start repairing or improving the orphanage.

When the trekkers arrive, they meet the orphans and help finish the major projects that their sponsors funded. Painting, landscaping, and installing furniture are often tasks allotted to the trekkers. They typically spend three to four days at the orphanage, working hard on the improvements and playing games with the children. 

“The first day is always the same,” says Tricia Donaldson, director of operations and logistics for Trekking for Kids. “The kids are a little shy, a little reserved.” But as soon as the hikers bring out the soccer balls, jump ropes, and toys, the fun begins. “They’re laughing, screaming, jumping on you. From that day forward, you’re like their best friend.”

At an orphanage in Cusco, Jimena, a little blind girl with jet-black hair, became quick friends with Amy Cook and Amy Spencer, two of the trekkers. Even though they had the same first name, Jimena knew exactly which woman was which. She quickly memorized the difference between one Amy and the other by touching their faces and listening to them speak. Even though Jimena couldn’t see her visitors or understand their English, she could feel their genuine affection.

Melanie Hall, who participated in the first trip to Peru, vividly remembers Jimena and the other children at the orphanage. “They have so little, and yet they’re so happy,” she says. “It really makes you think about your own life.”

Most trekkers have similar reactions, and they return from third-world countries with gratitude and a new desire to help others. Gina Giambruno, a wife and mother, came back from her adventure and decided to return to college after many years to earn her master’s degree in public health. This radical change came about after she met one little boy in Thailand who had been beaten before he reached the orphanage. “He didn’t trust anybody,” Giambruno says. “Even when I would put my hand on his shoulder, he would flinch.” 

Giambruno thought about that boy as she trekked through the jungles of Thailand and Laos. After the hike, she and the others returned for the customary final party where they reunited with the orphans to celebrate the completion of the work projects. At the party, the children and the trekkers wrote notes to each other on brightly colored paper lanterns and then sent them floating into the night sky. As Giambruno sat with her new little friend, she was astonished to read “I love you” written in Thai on his paper lantern. “It was really heartwarming,” she says. Her experience with this shy little boy instilled in her the desire to return to college to earn a degree that would allow her to help other children in similar situations.

Following the Footsteps

But it’s not just the kids who leave footprints on the hikers’ hearts—it’s also the switchbacks up the mountain, the view from the top, and especially the friendships made along the way. 

After spending a few days at the orphanage, hikers untangle themselves from the children’s arms and leave for the hike of a lifetime. On foreign terrain, a small crew of adventure seekers can be transformed from complete strangers to a close-knit family in a matter of days. 

“After sharing four days, six days, or even eight days of difficulty and adverse conditions, by the end of that hike, you’re like family,” Donaldson says. “When it gets challenging, we often think about the kids that we met at the orphanage and how they’ve had hard challenges in their lives that we can’t even imagine. That pushes a lot of us who are struggling along the trails.” The 75 miles to Everest Base Camp or 52 miles to Kilimanjaro definitely provide trekkers ample soul-searching time to reflect on their own lives and those of the orphans.  

In Ecuador, the group took on a more ambitious adventure, scaling ice glaciers to the summit of Cotopaxi. They completed this feat in six days, covering a distance of nearly 45 miles and an elevation of nearly 20,000 feet. “With a summit climb, you’re roped together, and it’s really intense,” Hall says. A summit climb like Cotopaxi differs from a hike such as the Mayan Highlands because every person is harnessed in a group, dependent upon one another. In situations like those, trust is vital—the kind of trust that can lead to lifelong bonds. 

Trekkers often begin planning the next trip with their new friends while still on their first expedition—and they stay in contact with each other all throughout the year. Laura Mann, a college-aged traveler, says that the unity created among the hikers is one of the most compelling aspects of the organization. “It’s not about who’s the fastest or the strongest,” she says. “You have a whole support system around you as you’re hiking.”

These adventurers have realized that traveling the world solely for their own enjoyment is not enough. They know that helping those who live in these exotic locations is what creates the most meaningful memories—and the most lasting friendships. They have felt the impact of the treks on their goals and especially their attitudes. “When you go into it feeling like you’re giving something,” Donaldson says, “you realize at the end that you’re the one who received.” 

Jenny Spencer