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From roof of Africa, McGarry raises awareness for autism

Thursday, December 18, 2014

When the sun rises on Feb. 14, Brad McGarry hopes to be watching it from atop Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro.

His climbing party will leave Barafu Camp shortly before midnight, timing it so they’ll arrive at the summit just as the sun peeks above the clouds. They’ll have about 20 minutes to savor the experience before heading back down from the 19, 341-foot peak.

It would be a “bucket list” moment for anyone, but it’s more than that for McGarry, who directs the Autism/Asperger Initiative (AIM) at Mercyhurst University. He’s calling his trek “Raise the Roof for Autism” and he’s using it to draw attention to the need for vocational resources for adults on the autism spectrum.

AIM recently added a Career Exploration Program to its curriculum, but few such resources are available to assist with the transition from college to the work world and unemployment rates among adults on the spectrum range as high as 85 percent.

McGarry explains, “I’m traveling to the roof of Africa to raise awareness, to remind people how much students on the spectrum can contribute to employers. But they need to be better prepared for the job market, and employers need to commit to hiring them.”

McGarry decided in October to make the climb, leaving him about four months to raise the $7,000 cost of the trip and to brush up his mountaineering skills.

He’s previously climbed Mount Marcy, the highest peak in New York’s Adirondack Mountains; New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, the highest peak in the northeastern United States; and Humphreys Peak in Arizona. Last summer, he and his wife Aimee did the South Kaibab Trail to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of Grand Canyon, which he calls “the exact opposite of mountain climbing.” They hiked seven and a half hours down into the canyon, and 10 hours back up the Bright Angel Trail, all in the desert environment.

Those endeavors, though, pale in comparison to the Mt. Kili climb. He’ll spend about eight days on the mountain, six days heading up and two days down. Starting in temperatures over 100 degrees, he’ll traverse the savannah, rainforest, heathland, alpine desert and arctic zones before ending up with temperatures below zero and dangerously low oxygen levels. “They say it’s like walking from the equator to the North Pole in five days,” McGarry says.

To prepare, he’s been hiking and climbing at every opportunity. He often walks the 8.6 miles between his office at Mercyhurst and his home in Summit Township. He does night hikes on the trails around his subdivision, and – thanks to Scott Enterprises – he’s climbed all over the trails of nearby Peek ‘n Peak Resort.  For many of his training sessions, he wears an acclimatization mask to inhibit his breathing and simulate the effects of high altitudes.

McGarry has received contributions from both individuals and businesses to sponsor his trip. Any donations above the actual cost will be used to promote vocational resources for students on the spectrum. To make a gift, visit hurstalumni.org/raise-the-roof-for-autism. You can follow McGarry’s adventures through a video diary on his Facebook page, Raise the Roof for Autism.

McGarry’s making the climb with Gene Taylor, whose Walking Connection organizes vacation trips of all types; one or two other climbers; and a support team of more than a dozen, including guides, cooks and porters.

McGarry and Taylor became friends after McGarry and his son, Connor, 12, took part in a “Conquer the Canyon” hike into the Grand Canyon in 2010 to raise awareness and funds for the National Angelman Syndrome Foundation.  Connor has Angelman Syndrome, a genetic disorder that results in delayed development, intellectual disability, speech impairment, problems with movement and balance, and recurrent seizures.

Two years later, McGarry and Taylor organized a “Conquer the Canyon” trip for AIM students that allowed them to experience the thrill of the canyon adventure, while also gaining valuable practice in social skills and team-building.

A second AIM group will leave Mercyhurst in May 2015 to “Conquer the Canyon.” Of the 21 expected to make that trip, 16 are students on the autism spectrum. McGarry hopes that trips like “Raise the Roof”  will increase awareness about the needs of these students and prompt businesses and universities across the country to help in providing quality employment opportunities for these well-qualified adults.

To help fund the trip for an AIM student, visit hurstalumni.org/conquer-the-canyon/.