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Climbing Kilimanjaro big win for physics programs

There are endless ways young adults make a difference in a local community. Douglas Alexander decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to help improve high school physics labs.

“It exceeded my expectations in every way,” the Loyola physics major said about the climb he made in July. Through “Climbing Kilimanjaro for the Physics of Tomorrow,” he raised $5,234.
The New Orleans-born Alexander grew up in Jackson, Miss., and said Africa was unlike any place he’d experienced; yet he was comfortable among a people he found as warm and open as those in New Orleans.

More than fund-raising

For Alexander, the mountain climb had a purpose beyond enhancing physics labs. He wanted to fulfill an aspiration he had long ago with friends in Phoenix before a drug addiction detoured his life for several years.
“A big part of the trip was being able to follow through and do what I say I’m going to do,” Alexander said. “It was a big part of my recovery. It (the climb) was very symbolic to me.” 
Alexander, 33, said once he got clean from addiction, he returned to a normal work routine, enrolled at Loyola University in 2008 and finally paid off his drug debt. Then, the Kilimanjaro climb came calling.
He was hesitant about regaling himself with a trip until he decided to add a fund-raising aspect to it. He said he chose to fund equipment for high schools, thinking he could help teachers inspire students the way his physics teacher in Jackson, Miss., inspired him.
“If these teachers had the tools to demonstrate and clarify these (physics) concepts that so many people struggle with and could grab some of these students and give them an ‘aha’ moment, maybe they would get into science,” Alexander said. “We need people to get into science.”
Helped several schools
So far, Alexander has enhanced the physics labs at Joseph S. Clark, Walter Cohen, Martin Luther King, Chalmette High, East Jefferson High, Thomas Jefferson, Lusher and Miller McCoy Academy. He’s distributed force tables to help students understand vectors; ballistic pendulums with a spring-loaded canon and a ball to study maximum angles; digital scales with a greater range to help students measure normal objects; and resonance tubes to help understand and measure sound waves.
“The lab experience is what science is all about,” he said. “Getting to see the real science work is so important. If people aren’t exposed to that, so much will be lost to them.” He said students might be able to memorize for a test, but without practical experience, they will forget what they learned.
“It’s like reading a book about driving a car and not driving a car,” he said.
He and fellow Loyola physics students plan future outreaches. On Nov. 8, they were to conduct experiments at the “Wild About Science” night at Lake Forest Charter School.
Alexander climbed Kilimanjaro’s 19,340 feet on the Lemosho route. He thought he had trained well for the 10-day, nine-night climb but was challenged almost immediately the first few days. Even though it was winter in Africa, Alexander‘s first leg trekking through the rain forest at the bottom of the mountain was hot and humid. When he encountered the Barranco Wall, it was a steep ascent of about 800-900 meters without ropes. 
“It was nuts,” Alexander said. “I wasn’t prepared for that.”

Incredibly difficult
Other than quitting drugs, he said climbing the summit from approximately 13,000-14,000 feet to the top “was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. We climbed at nighttime from 11:30 p.m. to sunrise.” He thinks the climb is planned that time of day because if people saw the last stretch, many wouldn’t finish.
“It (the summit) was a miserable experience,” he said, of the extreme cold. He doesn’t know how his fingers weren’t frostbitten. The descent was equally painful, mostly on gravel.
His favorite part of the climb was being above the clouds for extended periods.
“We’d wake up and see the sun rise and set over the clouds.”
From the experience, Alexander said he learned to love unconditionally as others loved him during his struggle with drugs and in Africa.
“To love without judgment, because that’s what I received when I was over in Africa. It’s a quality I hope to hold onto in my life.”
Alexander began his road to recovery from cocaine in 2007 and said he couldn’t have made it without reaching out to a higher power.
He said he never considered himself a spiritual person, even though he had grown up Episcopalian, until he got into recovery.
“When I would pray, it worked for me,” he said about how the steps in Alcoholics Anonymous made him take a moral inventory of himself and share it with others.
“I was able to learn what I believe in and what I stand for as a human being,” he said.
Loyola University’s Jesuit values gel with his own now.
“You get a sense of awareness of the bigger picture at Loyola,” he said.
Alexander says he’s in a good place in life. He hopes to attend medical school and eventually open a primary care clinic to help others, including drug addicts.
“Primary care is such a basic, fundamental right we all have,” he said. ”We have a right to good healthcare given in a way that’s respectful to people.”
Alexander has three sets of equipment left for the taking. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .
            Christine Bordelon can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .