Finding Her Path

Finding Her Path

After working in government and raising three kids, Bethesda's Cindy Steuart found a new challenge in an unexpected cause

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Cindy Steuart traveled to Everest Base Camp with Trekking for Kids in 2010. Photo by Cindy Steuart

Cindy Steuart stepped out of her sleeping hut at the Gorak Shep teahouse in Nepal and instantly felt startled by the cold.

Steuart’s daughter Lolly (right) with another TFK participant in Peru’s Lares Valley in July 2013

The medication she was taking for altitude sickness had forced her out of bed and into the freezing Himalayan night to go to the bathroom. It was near the end of a 13-day, 75-mile hike in late 2010 that had brought Steuart to Everest Base Camp with a group called Trekking for Kids (TFK). The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organizes adventure trips for adults (and occasionally teenagers) to iconic hiking destinations all over the world, and trekkers perform service projects to help children living in nearby orphanages. The group had spent its first few days working at an orphanage in Bhaktapur, Nepal, plastering, painting and setting up furniture. Their fundraising efforts at home had also paid for a brand-new third floor to be added to the formerly two-story building. Hikers had bonded with the 25 orphans during a field trip to a nature park, taken part in a Buddhist festival at a monastery and climbed to an elevation of 18,513 feet. During the trek, almost everyone developed a croup-like cough from the altitude, and some of the 21 people who began the journey were unable to finish it.

As Steuart, now 57, shivered her way to a nearby rock—the outhouse was a long walk from her sleeping hut—she felt a wave of inspiration. “I was surrounded by these 27,000-foot mountains, with stars that didn’t quit,” she says. “I was witnessing something startling and spectacular.”

The Bethesda resident had spent years working in politics and government before deciding to stay home and raise her three kids. With her children nearly grown, she knew she was ready again to lend her time and talents to an outside cause. Standing under a ring of the world’s highest peaks, she began to wonder if Trekking for Kids was that cause.

* * *


Photos from a July 2013 trip, one of four TFK trips Steuart has made to Peru. From top: TFK hikers break for a fun photo; Veronica peak; a woman and child along the Lare Valley; TFK participants, who raised funds for improvements at an orphanage in Ocongate, renovate a bathroom with help from children who live at the orphanage.

Steuart learned about Trekking for Kids in 2009 from her friend Bridgit Fried. She’d met Fried when their kids went to school together in Bethesda, and they’d bonded over a mutual love of hiking and the outdoors. Fried set up a meeting with TFK co-founder José Montero, who lives in D.C., and asked if she could bring Steuart. As Montero spoke about his goals for TFK and the group’s upcoming trip to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, Steuart was riveted.

“Without hesitation I said, ‘Count me in,’ ” she recalls.

Now TFK’s executive director, Steuart helps lead two or three trips a year to locations ranging from Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to Patagonia in Argentina and Chile. When she started trekking with the group, TFK was run by volunteers; now the organization has three paid staffers.

Montero and his sister, Ana María Montero, a correspondent for CNN en Español, first conceived of TFK while chatting with friends in early 2005 about their upcoming trip to Machu Picchu, the famed Incan ruins in Peru’s Andes Mountains. “The question became: How can we go to these iconic locations as Western tourists and be oblivious to the extreme poverty in the surrounding areas?” says José Montero, a former executive for The Coca-Cola Co. who is now president of The Montero Group, an international strategy advisory firm.


A TFK group with orphanage staff and children at the Kilimanjaro Centre for Orphans & Street Children. Photo by Cindy Steuart

They decided to add a service component to their trip, focusing their efforts on an orphanage in Cuzco, Peru, in homage to their father, José “Pepe” Montero, who was an orphan of the Spanish Civil War. They also decided that this idea was bigger than just the two of them and their friends, and bigger than this one trip. In March 2005, just two months before their hike, the siblings incorporated Trekking for Kids as a nonprofit. Trekkers would pay their own travel expenses and commit to raising at least $1,000 toward a project at a nearby orphanage.  

By 2010, Montero realized he needed an executive director to handle day-to-day operations. “We wanted to make sure whoever took this on would be someone we could trust to honor the legacy of my family, especially my father,” Montero says. Pepe Montero died in 2008.

José Montero designed TFK to be “life disruptive,” he says, with each trip leading to a shift in self-knowledge, self-confidence and priorities for the trekkers. Steuart says that certainly has been the case for her.


On a February 2013 trip to Tanzania, Steuart and other TFK participants camped on their way to Mount Kilimanjaro (shown in the distance). Photo by Cindy Steuart

* * *

Steuart is tall and slim with pale blond hair, piercing blue eyes and a wholesome, outdoorsy vibe. She grew up on a small family farm in western Nebraska, where her dad grew wheat and corn and raised cattle. The closest place to buy a gallon of milk was a 45-minute drive away, so the family grew or made most of what it needed. On summer afternoons, she’d ride her bike to the swimming hole about 5 miles away, rarely passing another person. Steuart grew up with a love of wide open spaces, and developed an affinity for the mountains and hiking during annual family camping trips to Colorado.

In 1980, Steuart moved to the D.C. area to work on Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign, and stayed in Washington for a full-time position with the United States Agency for International Development. Her first trip with USAID took her to the famine camps in Sudan. “I was in my early 20s, and it just rocked my world view,” Steuart says. “It’s something that has stuck with me ever since that time.”

Later, she accepted a position with Vice President Dan Quayle’s wife, assisting with Marilyn Quayle’s natural disaster preparedness and relief efforts, which took her to Mexico after an earthquake, Puerto Rico after a hurricane and to a host of other places struck by natural events. She was scheduled to go to Russia when she announced that she was pregnant with her first child. Security officers advised her to put travel plans on hold.

Steuart left that position in 1991 to stay home with her daughter, and never traveled on behalf of the government again. As fulfilling as it was to be a parent, she says, she longed for a taste of the life she’d left behind. “I missed it terribly,” she says. “I missed the sense of purpose I felt when I was traveling to those countries.”

Steuart knew that jobs in politics are based largely on networking, something she wasn’t able to do because she wanted to spend her time and energy on her kids. She figured her life of international travel and relief work was over. She started a freelance photography business in 2000, specializing in landscapes, sports and outdoor portraits, but by the time she accepted the invitation to travel to Everest Base Camp in 2010, she was hungry for another challenge.  

Still, she says, she had some doubts about leaving home for three weeks. Her oldest daughter, Anna, was already in college, but her son, Guy IV, was a junior at St. Albans School and her other daughter, Lolly, was a freshman at St. John’s College High School. In the month leading up to the trip, Steuart arranged three weeks’ worth of carpools, cooked three weeks’ worth of dinners, and prepared her family for her longest-ever absence.

These days, TFK groups have access to satellite phones and Internet service, even at Everest Base Camp. Six years ago, those things were harder to come by. “I may as well have been going to the moon,” Steuart says. “My husband was going to be at home, but I worried about missing things—I knew I would miss things while I was gone.”

* * *

Steuart says she was prepared to feel awed by the beauty of the Himalayas, but she didn’t expect to be so deeply moved by her work with the children. Ahead of the trip, she raised $4,500 by reaching out to friends and family, and as a group, the trekkers raised $58,000 for the orphanage. In addition to paying for a new floor to be added to the building, the money covered new beds for the 25 orphans, many of whom had never had one before.

One little boy expressed his gratitude by reaching into a small box that held all of his belongings—a sweater, a notebook, a photo of his mother and two pens—and giving Steuart one of the pens. “Of course I said, ‘No, no, no, I can’t take this,’ but it meant so much to him to give it to me,” Steuart says. “I treasure that pen. The trip was life-changing for the children in that orphanage, but it was life-changing for me, as well.”  

Jan Rosenberg, then 60, was the oldest hiker in the group and says he was feeling his age by the end of the trek. “Cindy was able to just spring up the mountain like it was nothing for her, but she was always checking in to make sure the rest of the group was doing OK,” says Rosenberg, a Potomac resident who is now a tech company CEO. “At one point, I was really struggling, and I think she could see that I was slowing down. She walked up beside me, grabbed my arm, and just walked arm-in-arm with me for about five minutes. It was one of those moments of kindness that really stuck with me.”

Before the trip, Steuart says everyone in her family—including herself—was more focused on how the logistics would work than on any actual risk. Then she came home with a digestive illness. “My kids were worried then, because they saw me in great discomfort for a few days,” she says.

After the trip, Montero asked Steuart to join the TFK board, and later to become the organization’s first executive director. She accepted the job in January 2012. “I could tell from Day One that she was a very smart, strategic person, and that she had a great deal of poise and credibility,” Montero says. “She really seemed to understand right away what our organization’s mission was all about.”

* * *

When traveling in developing countries, logistical snags are inevitable. Buses don’t show up. Roads are closed. Everything takes longer than anticipated.
Steuart learned the art of managing such situations during the first TFK trip she led—a seven-day, 52-mile trek to the summit of 19,340-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in 2013. The group’s first hotel in Moshi, Tanzania, was much farther from the airport than expected, so Steuart had to assuage trekkers’ fears that they “were being driven out to the hinterlands in Tanzania,” she says. After the trek, some members of the group discovered that their luggage wasn’t waiting for them at the hotel.

“I just went behind the scenes and stomped my feet with the hotel management to find out what was happening, and tried to keep cool with the trekkers, assuring them that the luggage must have gotten put in an office for safekeeping,” says Steuart, who was able to successfully reunite the trekkers with their suitcases. “These aren’t disasters, just bumps in the road.”

Each TFK trip includes roughly 15 trekkers from across the country, ranging from 20-something singles to 60-something retirees, and from accomplished mountaineers to first-time hikers. One trip included a middle-aged woman who had never hiked before, and a man who had climbed the Seven Summits (the highest peak on each continent) and skied the North and South poles. Though TFK provides training advice for newer hikers, the trips can prove strenuous. For many trekkers, it’s their first time camping in tents and going without running water for days.  

As a trek organizer and frequent trip leader, Steuart serves as a coach and a cheerleader, Fried says. During a four-day trek to Machu Picchu in 2014, about half of the women on the journey were hiking with speed and confidence, on pace to complete the 27-mile trip to the 14,107-foot summit in the allotted time. But the other women were struggling. After a difficult first day of hiking, Steuart met with Fried, her co-leader on the trip, to discuss a Plan B. Then she explained to the women that no matter what happened on the trek, their trip had already been a success based on their work with a Peruvian orphanage. After the talk, the group split up, with seven women continuing the hike with Steuart, and the rest traveling back to town with Fried.

Steuart’s outer calm belies challenges below the surface. While she confidently leads others to the top of 19,000-foot peaks, she is afraid of heights. She discovered this fear on a trip to Mexico in 1989, when she felt paralyzed by anxiety before descending from an Aztec pyramid she’d climbed.

Since then, rather than avoid her fear, she has stalked it, seeking opportunities to hike at high altitudes, and also to challenge herself on technical rock-climbing routes.

“Anytime you stop doing something because you’re afraid, you’re letting that fear control your life,” Steuart says. “I’m still afraid of heights, but I don’t want that fear to get the best of me.”

* * *

Until recently, Steuart hiked with significant physical pain, thanks to the cartilage in one of her hips being worn out, leaving bone grinding on bone. As she waited for the right time to undergo a full hip replacement, she prepared for every trek by getting cortisone injections in her hip and packing painkillers.

She had the surgery last June, and says she’s fully recovered and ready for the group’s upcoming treks to Brazil, Peru and Ethiopia. These days, all of her kids are living in Colorado, so going away means that Steuart and her husband, Guy Steuart III, vice president of Steuart Investment Company, just need to figure out “what to do with the dog,” she says. In retrospect, Steuart says, those few weeks per year she spent traveling while her kids were still living at home were important for her and for them. Lolly accompanied her on a trek to Peru in 2013; Anna and Guy IV have both expressed interest in going on future trips.

Steuart credits her mental toughness to the trips themselves, which she says have changed the way she looks at many aspects of her life. Witnessing and participating in religious rituals in foreign countries, such as the Buddhist festival in Nepal in 2010, have given her a greater appreciation of the diversity of beliefs throughout the world. Meeting young orphans has helped her keep her own challenges in perspective, both on the treks and back home.

“When I’m exhausted and just want to put down my pack and take a nap on a trek, I just think, I’m here by choice,” Steuart says. “The orphans are in very difficult situations, and none of them are there by choice. Yet they are all so joyful, and so grateful for what little they have.” 

Amy Reinink is a frequent contributor to the magazine who also writes for Men’s Health and other publications.

 

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