U.S. Army Sergeant Major Karim Mella has been climbing mountains ever since he was an 11-year-old boy in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. When he was 13, someone gave him a book about the 1924 British Everest Expedition, and since that moment, he says he became fixated on climbing the nearly 30,000 foot mountain in the Himalayas — the tallest mountain in the world. Thirty years later, he became the first Dominican to reach the summit.
After climbing Mount Everest, no easy feat, as it cost approximately $75,000 and two months to climb, he says he was asked to speak by various organizations about his life-changing experience. However, what was really pulling at his heart he says, was going back to his roots.
“Before I went to Mount Everest, I told everyone I want this project to get to the people, but I never felt that was achieved,” says the very down-to-earth Mella. “I thought, ‘What about the kids in the Dominican Republic?’”
That innate feeling is what launched Mella on his next adventure. Just a few months after he reached ground level, he started a grassroots organization in the Dominican Republic called La Fundación Siempre Más. He travels there from him home in Tampa, Fla. any time he can get away for a few days, to motivate kids and teach them the power of perseverance, effort, and teamwork.
“I take the kids to the mountains,” says Mella. “I teach them classes in reference to the environment. If you don’t know your country it’s hard for you to love it, and if you don’t love it, it’s hard for you to care. I take them there, and they see the country with different eyes.”
At the same time, he says he tries to show them they can be whatever they want. The motto for his organization is “Reach your summit.”
“I tell the kids it doesn’t matter how long it takes, you have to work hard to pursue your dreams,” says the bearded 45-year-old. “Nowadays they want everything fast. They want everything yesterday, but reality is different.”
Mella’s reality revolves around working hard. After graduating from the Naval Academy in the Dominican Republic, he immigrated to the U.S. in 1991 and joined the U.S. Army. After 21 years, he now serves as a Green Beret — special forces that train and lead the military in foreign countries. His next mission will be in Brazil, where he will move in two months, to be based for the next two years.
While training to climb Mount Everest, Mella says he had to get creative since there are no mountains to train on in Tampa. Instead, he went downtown and found the tallest building instead — the Bank of America building.
“I asked, ‘Hey, can I train here?’,” he says. “It took a couple of weeks for them to realize I wasn’t joking. I needed to be out of there by 7am, so twice or three times a week I was going at 4 in the morning to start climbing stairs…I trained very hard for about six months, but I am constantly training.”
Every year, he says he chooses one big mountain to climb anywhere around the world, and in between, he goes to the Dominican Republic.
“I’m going in three weeks to take 76 [high school] students, and then back in March to take 50 students up Pico Duarte,” says Mella describing the 10,000 foot mountain in the middle of the Dominican Republic with the highest altitude in the whole Caribbean. “They are eager to participate in everything. They are very appreciative…For them it’s quite expensive. They need sleeping bags, a jacket, gloves. Some barely have one pair of shoes.”
However, Mella makes it clear that he makes getting chosen for the climbing group a challenge.
“They need to write an essay about nature and the natural parks, and based on that essay, I choose them,” he says. “They have to work for it…When you get something for free, you don’t appreciate it as much than if you worked for it. You have to work to get there, and when they are on the backpacking trip, they have to work hard as a team for four days.”
He says he tries to find the students in the most remote schools in the country, that often don’t have anything to write with and have to share one chair in class, and he’s been paying for these trips out of his own pocket, but he would like to find sponsors.
“You can pay $4,000 pesos (about $100) that’s how much it costs me for an experience of a lifetime,” says Mella about the cost to take one kid up Pico Duarte. “You can see these kids light up. It’s like a haven for them. They put their guard down and just open up. It’s amazing…That experience will be forever. You can lose everything in your life except your experiences.”
He says a lot of these kids don’t have role models to look up to, or people to just pay attention to them, and it’s the least he can do to motivate them and share experiences with them.
“I came from the Dominican Republic, and I went to the top of the world literally,” says Mella, whose next big goal is to reach the summit of Mount Vinson in Antarctica next year — which will give the Dominican Republic a presence in the highest point of each of the seven continents. “If I can do that, they can do that.”