TWO successful Cork businesswomen are preparing to swap the relative comfort of the boardroom for the sub-zero temperatures of the Arctic region.
Karen Fleming, Sales Director of the Hayfield Collection, and Emma Kenneally, Head of Marketing for Vox Pro commercial, didn’t know each other prior to answering the call to participate in the upcoming challenge in aid of DEBRA Ireland — but they have already bonded as they get ready for the expedition of a lifetime.
DEBRA Ireland was set up in 1988 by families living with a rare skin condition called EB (Epidermolysis Bullosa). An estimated one in 18,000 babies born in Ireland is affected by it, while over 500,000 people have EB worldwide.
It’s an excruciating genetic condition in which layers of the skin and internal body lining separate, resulting in painful blistering and sores, at even the slightest touch. People sometimes refer to it as the Butterfly disease, as EB skin is as fragile as the wings of a butterfly. The blisters have to be lanced and dressed every day, typically taking up to three hours at a time. It is incurable and families experiencing it are frustrated by the lack of support and funding.
Neither Karen nor Emma have any family members who suffer from EB — although they had moderate knowledge of the condition — but felt compelled to take up the challenge when approached by DEBRA Ireland.
“I got an e-mail from them which said: ‘We are recruiting bad-ass women’, and I think my ego kicked in; that they considered me bad-ass”, laughs Karen. “Which I’m totally not!” she quickly adds.
“I said I’d think about it if they could give me the names of one or two women who took part last year and give them a buzz, which I did. And then I consulted my partner and family.”
Bosses at her workplace are also on board with her plan.
“The Scallys own three hotels now and they’re really interested in CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). They said straight away, ‘It’s an amazing opportunity — go for it’.”
Emma’s reaction was even more immediate: “I kind of just said yes, but now, looking at the challenge, it’s pretty tough.”
Her answer in the affirmative was possibly due to the fact she does possess an adventurous streak, having already travelled to Haiti with the Soul of Haiti charity to help renovate an orphanage; she’s run half marathons and would describe herself as “fairly active”.
“I probably would be someone who would say yes without thinking about things properly,” she laughs. “To be honest, if something pulls at the heartstrings I’ll go for it, and this really resonated with me. It seemed like a no-brainer.”
She did go skiing once a few years ago but didn’t feel that she truly earned her skiing stripes.
“I wouldn’t be comfortable or confident in snow. And even on a holiday you get to go back to a cosy, warm hotel!” she says.
While Karen states that she’s “not an adrenaline junkie” there is plenty of evidence that her previous holidays haven’t just consisted of lying by the pool.
“I did a good bit of back-packing and I did a Skydive — never again, but the box is ticked! And I did Death Road, the mountain biking trail in Bolivia. Looking back, I’ve done a few things that are not super-safe.”
Karen also lived in Germany for a number of years, where she went skiing and cross-country skiing, so she is hoping that experience will prepare her somewhat for what lies ahead, although she also states that “cold is NOT my favourite thing!”
This Arctic trek might well be the most gruelling of her adventures yet and she has begun to doubt her fitness levels.
“I should be training more than I am. I started with Educogym back in November and did the 12-day programme which was really good. Then I had a work trip and then Christmas came, so I fell off the wagon. I do have to get back to it now because the fitter you are, the more you are going to enjoy it.”
Karen and Emma will be among a group of 20 — and the only two from Cork — when they set off from Dublin Airport for Helsinki and on to Lapland on March 19. The first few days will be dedicated to learning the skills necessary to stay alive in the harsh Arctic environment, before they pack their sleds to set off on their expedition to the wilderness, pulling their belongings behind them as they go.
While in training mode, the accommodation will consist of hostel-style rooms with no electricity, but when they reach their destination they will spend the night in tents around a campfire, braving the icy temperatures (-27 to -30 expected!) and taking in the beauty of the frozen landscape. Not for the faint-hearted.
A sort of Bear Grylls meets I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here experience, perhaps. With, thankfully, no obligation to eat witchetty grubs.
To get there, each participant must raise €5,500, which includes flights, accommodation, training, food and equipment: €3,500 of that sum will go to DEBRA Ireland’s latest service — a new EB mobile nurse who will visit families, giving patients hospital standard expertise in their own homes.
To that end, Emma and Karen have joined forces on their fundraising efforts and. with the excesses of Christmas behind us and a New Year focus on wellness, have teamed up for a Health and Happiness event on January 20 at Hayfield Manor. Those attending can look forward to limbering up with Jean Noonan — also known as Lifestyle Jeanie — of Anam Solas Yoga, while Michelle Hardwick of Release Peace will be on hand to cover mindfulness and meditation, and Julette Jones of Flex In The City will provide a pilates session. As the event is already sold out, a second half day retreat has been added for February 3, with tickets on sale through Eventbrite.ie. A day of bag-packing in Youghal has also been organised for the end of February.
While raising funds and awareness for DEBRA Ireland is the main priority, what do the women hope to get out of the trip on a personal level?
“It’s a good way to get a bit of perspective”, says Emma. “I want to be thankful and mindful of what I have. We might all have some troubles but most of us are actually quite lucky.”
There will be plenty of time to ponder such things when she is 150km north of the Arctic Circle, an area with no mobile phone coverage.
“I’m not too bothered by the phone to be honest. I’m almost looking forward to it,” she adds.
The digital detox is something Karen is embracing too, while another personal upside — friendship and comradery — has already kicked in.
“Emma is a new friend now, which I really appreciate,” she says. She ends our chat in good-humoured fashion: “We’re not exactly Tom Crean standard but it’ll be a challenge, I’m sure!”