Archive for March, 2010

The Ultimate Prize

“What’s Your Everest” Contest Winner Aleya Littleton Pays It Forward

“My parents told me ‘to whom much is given, much is required,’” says Aleya Littleton. When the 24-year-old winner of Champion Athletic Apparel’s “What’s Your Everest?” contest walked away with $10,000, she took the advice to heart. Instead of blowing the entire ten grand on a search for self-improvement, Littleton is using her prize to climb a North American peak through Backpacker magazine’s “Summit for Someone” program, which in turn donates the money Littleton has raised to Big City Mountaineers, a non-profit that helps urban kids get outside and thrive.
“This is my one big chance to do what I’ve always said I’d do,” says Littleton. “Yeah, there were plenty of things I could use the money for, like paying rent or paying off bills, but I don’t know when I’m going to get an opportunity like this again.”
As you’ll see below, Littleton, a former middle-school teacher who is now the education coordinator for NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory in Maryland, takes every opportunity she can to pay it forward. To see her winning video visit:

Stephanie Pearson: Before you started at NASA, you were a middle-school teacher. Tell us about that experience:

Aleya Littleton: I taught seventh- and eighth-grade science. Both schools I taught in were in urban environments in the dead center of Tampa, Florida, and Allentown, Pennsylvania. Both had similar demographics – lots of migrant Hispanic families and kids who qualified for free and reduced lunches.

SP: What do you do at NASA?

AL: I am the formal education coordinator for the Solar Dynamics Observatory. I do everything teacher-related for a NASA mission that just launched to study the sun, from field trips to classroom visits to developing classroom-teacher guides. I try to work with kids as often as I possibly can. I love to visit schools and excite kids in the classroom.

SP: It’s interesting that you’ve chosen a career in public education considering that you were homeschooled. What was that like?

AL: I had to be a self-starter. As high school came around my parents were not very good with science, so I taught myself biology. I took some online classes like physics, algebra, and trigonometry. I went really quickly through a couple of grades in high school, doing three grades in two years. I thought, “Hey, if you want to do this, get it done.” One year my mom took my brother, sister, and me on a cross-country trip. We drove from Pennsylvania to the West Coast, which counted for history, art, physical education, and geology. It was school, but it was vacation.

SP: How did you get into climbing?

AL: In high school, I started with an organization in Pennsylvania called Civil Air Patrol that does outdoor search and rescue. There was a lot of high ropes rescue, rappelling, learning about safety systems, gear, and practicing outdoors. I loved that. Then I took a class on climbing in college for a physical education credit, learned about anchors, more safety stuff, and got hooked on it as a sport. It’s skyrocketed since I’ve moved to Maryland. There are great places within driving distance, and I work part-time at Earth Treks Climbing Centers so I can climb for free.

SP: You love to climb, but you’re afraid of heights. How did that happen?

AL: Actually, it’s really weird. My fear had been there all along, but I hadn’t been doing anything risky enough to make it come up. If it had happened earlier, maybe I wouldn’t be this obsessed with climbing, but since I had already fallen in love with the Zen of the sport, the gear, the precision, the people, and the environment, maybe I wouldn’t be doing this, but I got wrapped up in it and now all of the sudden I have this dark cloud hanging over my head.

SP: What’s the extent of your climbing fear?

AL: It’s a visceral response. I think about it and am afraid. When I climb outdoors, frequently I go to Seneca in West Virginia. I do a lot of things that are really simple, but I freeze and panic. When we were in Utah, my brother and I went scrambling over the rocks near our campsite and he got stuck. I had to help talk him down. On one side there was an edge that went off into nothing. On the other side, there was a smaller drop that still could have hurt us. The thought of him or myself being anything near that made me sick to my stomach.

SP: What are you doing to overcome this fear?

AL: I’ve been doing a lot of mock stuff in the gym and I’ve been doing lots of research into different things I can do when I feel anxious, like having a mantra or drinking lots of orange juice before climbing – a rush of vitamin C and calcium decreases anxiety. Ice climbing has been really interesting. The few times I’ve gone ice climbing, I haven’t had that same kind of fear, which is really weird. It might have something to do with being wrapped in so many layers of clothes.

SP: What are your climbing goals?

AL: My goal for this year is to lead sport climbs in a gym and hopefully starting to lead trad (carrying and placing protection as you climb, rather than relying on pre-existing bolts) and not be so dizzy when I’m around heights. I’ve been talking about going out to climb the Grand Teton.

SP: Was it tempting to keep the $10,000 prize?

AL: Sure, I have other things that I can do with it – anybody can think of a variety of things to do with $10,000. I’ve always fantasized about what I’d do with a whole lot of money, but the more you focus on yourself, the more miserable you are.

SP: Why did you choose Summit for Someone and Big-City Mountaineers?

AL: I knew I wanted to use it to A) help me overcome my problem with heights and B) bring kids outdoors, especially the kids I work with.

When I was first making the video, I thought maybe I could use the money as seed money for my own project. But the more I researched it, $10,000 isn’t a whole lot of money without a structure like what Summit for Someone and Big City Mountaineers already have in place.

SP: How does Summit for Someone work?

AL: Anybody can go on a “Summit for Someone” climb. It’s a guided climb, for which you raise money, which goes to Big City Mountaineers. They are getting all $10,000, but I’m taking my best friend and going to climb Mount Rainier or Gannett Peak in the spring. I get to be in that environment way up high, but all the money goes to Big City Mountaineers.

SP: How did you hear about the “What’s Your Everest” contest?

AL: Twitter. I’m a huge fan of social media. I’ve really bonded with the climbing community online.

SP: Had you ever made a video before?

AL: That was my first video. I kind of wanted to make all new footage, but ended up using video footage for a road trip I took with my brother from D.C. to Utah because it looked better.

SP: In the spirit of Champion, Jamie Clarke, and, leave us with one last inspirational thought:

AL: Focus less on yourself and more on others. Whatever is happening in your own life is less than what other people are going through. Remember to lift other people up along the way.