Oh Siew May and Gareth Chua

Gareth Chua (right) became the first person to reach the symbolic summit of Mount Fuji in a virtual challenge. He and Oh Siew May are special needs ambassadors who highlight the abilities of a group of clients at YMCA. All photos courtesy of YMCA.

Two years ago, 10 persons with special needs hiked to Mount Fuji’s base camp in the inaugural YMCA Inclusive Climb. They were accompanied by volunteers. Bad weather prevented them from ascending to the peak. 

This year, even with Covid-19 travel restrictions, a similar challenge is taking place. Not in Japan. But in Singapore. 

Between February 27 to May 29, participants can hike to an elevation of 3,776m – the height of Mount Fuji. Or they can walk, run or cycle 125km – the equivalent of Mount Fuji’s perimeter. 

Participants do this at their own pace – as individuals or as part of a team. The virtual challenge is open to the public.

“It’s about helping people reach a height that they never thought possible, both literally and figuratively.”

At one stage, it looked like Steve Loh, general secretary and chief executive officer of YMCA of Singapore, would be the first to complete the challenge. He had wanted to lead by example.

He was elated that Gareth Chua, 22, who has autism, became the first to reach the symbolic summit of Mount Fuji on April 1.

“I am totally delighted that he beat me to it, because that’s exactly what this challenge is all about,” Loh, 49, told Salt&Light.

“It’s about helping people reach beyond themselves to fulfil their potential. And also reach a height that they never thought possible, both literally and figuratively.”

Gareth continues to climb.

He has already hit the symbolic summit of Mount Fuji a second time, and has logged a cumulative elevation of 5,642m – the equivalent of Russia’s highest peak, Mount Elbrus. He is currently on track for the symbolic summit of Mount Everest – 8,849m high. 

As of April 19, 560 participants have registered for this year’s YMCA Special Needs Inclusive Challenge. To date, slightly over $117,000 has been raised through the challenge. The goal is to raise $250,000 for sports, arts and employment programmes at the YMCA.

Up and down HDB stairs

Gareth, the first to reach the symbolic summit, is a student at ITE College Central.

“I was very excited about being the first, but it’s not as important as I wanted to complete it,” he said.

Gareth is a special needs ambassador for YMCA, identified by the organisation to be a voice for its community, and to champion, challenge and train youths to reach their potential.

“I wanted to join this event as I need to be active.

Gareth had previously participated in the ITE virtual run, Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon and The Straits Times Run. He swam, jogged and played basketball when he was growing up. 

“Like any one of us, people with special needs have dreams and aspirations.”

Gareth trained weekly to prepare for the climb by swimming and dancing.

For the actual challenge, he climbed staircases of various HDB blocks – including 47 stories of The Pinnacle@Duxton twice in the same session. He climbed Bukit Timah Hill on three occasions and jogged multiple sets of 60 laps around a park. 

“I didn’t give up. I benefitted from the challenge by completing the hike and becoming fitter,” he said.

Gareth’s efforts garnered more than $3,000 in donations. Thanks to his encouragement, 15 of his friends are planning to sign up for the challenge. 

Motivation to climb

Gareth hopes his efforts will encourage “other special needs ambassadors that have difficulty climbing up and reaching the top”.

“We want to say to you, go beyond yourself.” 

He hikes with them weekly at nature reserves. Friends he’s made from this group include  Oh Siew May, 50, an author and motivational speaker with cerebral palsy.

Siew May was part of the group that scaled Mount Fuji in 2019.

While disappointed that the group is unable to travel to Japan for this year’s challenge, Siew May said: “The most important thing is the work that we are doing.”

“I want people to know that being disabled doesn’t mean unable,” said Siew May, who has cerebral palsy. She reached Mount Fuji’s physical base camp in 2019. She is in the midst of completing this year’s virtual challenge in Singapore.

And that is to “stir up endurance and the fighting spirit” in others – even if the climb is more of an effort for her than for her peers.

She also enjoys the company of the team and the volunteers.

A metaphor for God’s call

Through YMCA special needs ambassadors such as Gareth and Siew May, Loh hopes to raise public awareness that “people with special needs have special abilities”. 

The Inclusive Challenge is a platform to show that the special needs community is able to go beyond what is traditionally accepted for them. It also builds confidence and resilience.

“We also want to build awareness for potential employers to look at their abilities,” said Steve Loh of participants with special needs in the Inclusive Climb. “That’s the goal.”

Like any one of us, people with special needs have dreams and aspirations, said Loh. Many of their dreams are to climb mountains.

“You wouldn’t think that of someone with say, cerebral palsy. You might have written them off already. But at YMCA, we don’t write them off. I don’t think the Lord writes them off.”

Loh has told participants: “We are cheering you on. We want to say to you: ‘Go beyond yourself.’ 

“The special needs inclusive climb is simply a metaphor of God’s call to His people to accomplish great things.”

“We’ll train you. We’ll provide facilities for you to practise, we’ll give you professional instruction, we’ll coach you along the way to accomplish (your dreams),” said Loh. 

Loh also hopes to see every client with special needs accepted in an inclusive community and workplace.

“We want to bridge that (unemployment) gap, train them – both in character, in competency, so that they can be gainfully employed and progress along a career path like anyone else.

“We also want to build awareness for potential employers to look at their abilities, not just their disabilities. That’s the goal of what we do here, in this climb.”

“The special needs inclusive climb is simply a metaphor of God’s call to His people to accomplish great things that no eye has seen, no ear has heard and no mind can conceive,” said Loh, referencing Isaiah 64:4 and 1 Corinthians 2:9.

“In doing so, we bring Him glory, because we can see His footprint, and His manifest presence and power in our lives.”

The cue for challenging and empowering clients with special needs comes from Jesus as He was always championing people. He looked at Peter and He said, ‘You are my rock, on which I will build my church.’ (Matthew 16:18)

“Jesus looked at Peter and He saw potential, what he could be, and Jesus called it out.” 

The YMCA Special Needs Inclusive Challenge 2021 is on till May 29. Click here to register or to learn more. You may also wish to donate here.


“Disabled does not mean unable”: 10 persons with special needs ascend Mount Fuji

Art and faith

About the author

Gracia Yap

Gracia is an aspiring journalist who loves hearing the unique stories of others. In her free time, she wants nothing more than to chill with Netflix or a good book. While her sense of direction is questionable, writing for Salt&Light as an intern helps her make better sense of life.