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Mountain master

This Local Woman Climbs Mountains to Beat Cancer. Will You Join Her?

“I was not an athletic child,” explains Lorraine Owczarek. “As the oldest daughter in a Polish-Italian family, my job was to be in the kitchen and help with my six siblings.”

So it’s more than a little surprising to learn that this 58-year-old never-an-athlete has scaled some of the world’s most challenging mountains, like Pikes Peak in Colorado, Mount Washington in New Hampshire and Mount Katahdin in Maine. Since 2009, the Chesterfield Township resident and director of operations of the St. John Providence Foundations in southeastern Michigan has been among the bold adventurers raising funds to help uninsured (and underinsured) women pay for mammograms and breast cancer treatment.

The Climb to Beat Breast Cancer fundraiser was founded in 2007 by Francesco Lucarelli, who scaled Mount Kilimanjaro that year in memory of his mother, Maria, who died of breast cancer in 2001. “I think what I really learned from my mom and her illness is to make the most of life,” he explained in information about the climb. “I believe I can have a two-fold effect: first, to live up to that expectation of enjoying life; and second, to honor her by generating support for battling this devastating disease. What began as an individual pursuit has become a climb for many. I still think of my mom every step of the way, but I now focus more on what these climbs can do for thousands like her.”

Owczarek met Lucarelli in 2006 as part of her work with St. John Providence, where his father was a trustee. Events coordinator at the time, she was impressed by Lucarelli’s passion, dedication and selflessness. She started reading the blog he kept about his climbs, slowly getting more inspired by his treks. “He was grieving and spilled out his feelings in his blog,” she explains. “I really wanted to ‘adopt’ him.” She admits to feeling an instant bond when they met, and decided to do the next best thing – help grow the climb that honored his mother into a larger fundraiser that would help others like her. “Francesco said, ‘Let’s turn this into a group thing,’ ” and I asked “Where are we going and when?” and he said ‘I was hoping you’d say that.’ ”

She climbed Pikes Peak with Lucarelli and an expanded team in 2009 and has scaled a new mountain each year ever since. In addition to those already mentioned, the list includes Ben Lomond in Utah, the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, Mount Mitchell in North Carolina and Harney Peak in South Dakota.

Looking back, however, she admits she was in over her head that first year. “I had no clue what I was getting myself into,” she says with a laugh. “I remember when the plane landed on the tarmac and I looked at the mountain and thought ‘no way!’ I somehow made it to the top, but there were many times I just wanted to lay down and have a helicopter pick me up.”

Since then, Owczarek has scaled seven more peaks. She has also become the organizer of the event and its unofficial trainer and cheerleader. She starts planning pre-climb fitness events in January, months before the yearly June trek, and sends out fitness and nutrition tips encouraging participants to stay in shape. “I’ll send out weekly emails asking who wants to meet to snowshoe or hike at a local park and give pointers about the upcoming trails,” she explains. The group recently announced that their 2017 climb would be Georgia’s highest peak, 4,784-foot Brasstown Bald in the heart of the Southern Appalachians.

Along the way, Owczarek has inspired other members of her family to join in. That includes her daughter, Amy, who has climbed seven times, missing only the year she was pregnant. The 2016 climb of 5,301-foot Mount LeConte in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains marked the 10th anniversary of the first climb. In Owczarek’s years organizing the event, 191 climbers have hiked up 10 different mountains to save lives, 426 prayer flags have been carried to the summits, and over $383,000 has been raised. In celebration of the 10th anniversary climb, The Maria R. Lucarelli Endowment Fund was set up to provide additional support for St. John Providence breast care services for years to come.

Taking part in the climbs has changed her life, Owczarek says, and not just physically. “There are years I say I’m tired and I’m done – but I can’t stop. There is a bigger purpose for me doing this. I’ve seen things I never would have seen and pushed myself to the limit,” she says.

The night before the climb, she gives participants a pep talk, reminding them of their goals. She also reminds them of the event’s benefits – both the obvious and the not so obvious.

“I tell them I hope they will keep going and that if they do, they will come off the mountain with a sense of accomplishment, and so much more.”

While she points out the climb’s benefits, Owczarek is also quick to tell people that the climb isn’t easy and that they need to be mentally and physically prepared. Not everyone makes it up, and many admit to wanting to quit at some point. It’s a lot like life, she notes.

When someone says they want to stop and lie down, Owczarek asks them to think about the challenges facing the people they are trying to help. “Then I encourage them by saying, ‘If I can do this, you can do this, let’s keep going.’ ”

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HAP and Henry Ford Health System employees can donate a portion of their pay as part of corporate giving. This year they gave almost $115,000 to cancer causes, including the Henry Ford Cancer Institute.

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