Amy Clegg, a Clarks Summit resident, and Nikki Schake, who resides in Springville, both of Express Employment Professionals in Scranton, recently hiked across the Grand Canyon in one day with Project Athena Foundation.
The non-profit organization helps adventurous dreams come true for people who have faced medical set-backs or challenges.
“Up until now, words like ‘perseverance’ and ‘grit’ did not apply to me,” said Schake, honored recipient of the Project Athena Foundation. When the going got tough, this girl stayed in bed. Chronic Lyme Disease has controlled most of my life, but I’m taking it back. I found out that I’m much stronger than I ever imagined. I’m always the last one to know.”
Founder Robyn Benincasa of San Diego, California created the foundation after having both hips replaced after a successful career as a world class adventure racer and San Diego Firefighter.
Benincasa believes challenges do not define one’s future, but completing a PAF adventure can reshape and redirect one’s new path to healing and hope, and provide strength to press on.
The non-profit exists by the generosity of “Gods and Goddesses” who raise funds to support the expenses of the “Athenas and Zeuses” who are overcoming health challenges. Named for the Greek goddess of wisdom and war and the god of gods, “Athenas and Zeuses” are survivors of a medical or traumatic setback who have received an Athenaship Grant to help them achieve their adventurous dreams.
People train for four to five months before embarking on a challenging adventures in the Grand Canyon, San Diego, or the Florida Keys. Clegg and Schake joined 45 others to complete the Rim2Rim hike in the Grand Canyon. The group endured the feat in 14 non-stop hours.
Schake credits her success of the hike to Clegg, who refuses to give up on her.
“I wasn’t taking the training seriously. While hiking to the top of the Tunkhannock Trail of Elk Mountain (the tallest mountain in Pennsylvania) for the third time in a row, I realized that I was stopping every 10 steps to catch my breath. I was exhausted, defeated and crying. I knew at that moment that I had to change. If I didn’t step up, then I would never conquer the canyon. On my descent, I was met with cheers and encouragement by Amy and her two young children. They spent six hours at the base of the mountain to cheer me on. I would have given up if they weren’t there to support me. It was the turning point in my training journey.”
For Schake, this was her second chance to team with PAF. In 2018, she trained for the Keys to Recovery adventure in the Florida Keys. The team hikes, bikes and kayaks 120 miles in three days from Key Largo to Key West.
“I had to cancel on the day I was traveling to Florida. My body was so sick. I realistically could not complete an endurance challenge. I was absolutely devastated. Robyn reassured me that I was officially part of the family, and I would complete a future event. I would still have the opportunity to experience a life changing adventure.”
After Schake mourned for two weeks, Clegg suggested they hike Rim2Rim across the Grand Canyon.
Clegg is inspired by her brother who suffered a skiing accident 20 years ago that left him in hypothermic conditions, resulting in having both of his legs amputated. He now hikes and bikes all over the Pocono Mountains.
“If my brother can hike without legs, then there is no reason I can’t hike across the Grand Canyon. His determination is very motivating,” Clegg said.
Schake was hesitant.
“I don’t enjoy hiking. Who hikes across the Grand Canyon in the middle of August? I’m not that crazy.”
Clegg became a Project Athena Goddess and the two embarked on their life-changing journey.
“I was asked about what kind of athlete I am. I am not. I am in bed all day with headaches and pain. The past eight years have been some of the most challenging in my life. But, Amy never gave up on me. I wouldn’t have wanted to do this with anyone else,” Schake said, laughing.
The pair say they are forever changed by their Project Athena experience.
“I was pushed, pulled, fed, watered and loved out of the canyon. I never stopped smiling. This was not the most difficult experience of my life. I am now an athlete. I can’t wait to pay it forward for years to come with Project Athena. I have unfinished business to complete in Florida next year, but I will return to the canyon in 2021 to hike Rim2Rim2Rim,” said Schake.
Clegg says the experience humbled and inspired her.
“I met incredible people who faced very difficult hardships,” she said. “I made lifetime friends. My faith is strengthened and I am grateful to experience such an amazing accomplishment. I can’t wait to do it again.”
Schake added, “I am eternally grateful for Amy’s friendship. She loves me even on my worst and darkest days. She reminds me that I am enough. But I’m also so much more.”