Jackie Knechtel left home last August to travel the world. What began as the adventure of a lifetime will end up supporting a worthy cause as Knechtel climbs the world's tallest freestanding mountain to raise money and awareness for Autism Speaks.

At 19,340 feet, Mt. Kilimanjaro commands attention-attention that speech pathologist and world traveler Knechtel believes is due autism and those affected by it, and so on July 24, 2010, she will begin her trek to Kilimanjaro's summit to raise much-need research funding for Autism Speaks.

When Knechtel made the decision to make the climb, she chose a cause close to her heart. For the last ten years, she has been working with special needs children, but she found her calling when she was still in high school. “Actually,” she recounted in a recent interview, “I think it might have even been eighth grade.” Teaching religious education in an after school program, Knechtel worked with a little girl with Downs Syndrome. “Our time together was really special and we formed a very strong bond.

When she started her trip, climbing Kilimanjaro was not on the agenda. Knechtel was simply wanted to seize the day, after the realization that life is fleeting hit home following the death of her brother in February 2009. “I got to thinking about my life and what I wanted to do with it. the world that would make me happy, regardless of obstacles and difficulties, I decided that taking a trip around the world would be the thing that would make me that happiest. ” By August, she had sold her apartment, her car, put her practice on hold and was headed for Peru to visit Macchu Picchu.

Although Knechtel had planned to visit Africa for the World Cup and to go on safari, it was not until a friend asked her if she wanted to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro that the idea first came up. “My initial response was no, '” she related with a laugh. “I wanted to go sailing in Greece.

But after spending a sleepless night in an airport on her way to Brazil, the notice kept creeping into her thoughts. “I just kept thinking about it. All these ideas were just swirling in my head. charity. ”

To that end, Knechtel contacted Autism Speaks. Founded in February 2005, Autism Speaks has become the country's largest autism advocacy organization. According to their Web site, Autism Speaks is “dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism; increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders; and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families.”

The site also provides some pretty staggering statistics: one in every 110 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism. According to Knechtel, in Australia, the number is one child out every 100. Statistics also show that autism is more precalent than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric aids combined. Knechtel's goal is to raise $ 10,000 in contributions for Autism Speaks.

Knechtel's trek will take place over seven days, moving through five climates. “It's not an actual 'climbing' mountain,” Knechtel explained. Even though the climb does not require much mountaineering skill, Kilimanjaro is still considered technically difficult due to the severe altitude and unpredictable weather conditions. Located in northern Tanzania near the Kenyan border, Mt. Kilimanjaro is the tallest freestanding mountain in the world.

To prepare for her climb, Knechtel has been training on the road. “I've been training wherever I can, which is not always easy when you're traveling.” I did a couple of pretty intense hikes in New Zealand. Unfortunately the weather was not cooperating. There was an unusual amount of rain at the time and the trails were closed. ” Instead, she opted to attend a health retreat. “I decided to eat really well and do a detox sugar-free, salt-free, caffeine-free diet.

Back on the road, Knechtel has been fitting in fitness training wherever she can. “I bought a jump rope. That's pretty portable, so I can get in a good cardio workout, and I go for walks and runs whenever I can.

“It's important to take it slow,” she explained, as taking the journey too quickly and not giving your body adequate opportunity to acclimate to the higher altitudes that can result in acute mountain sickness. “If you start to feel nauseous and light-headed, you need to turn back,” she said, stressing again the importance of keeping a slow and steady pace.

“The climb is really a hike at a consistent incline except for the last three hours.

More than a metaphor for hardship and hope, Knechtel sees her climb as an opportunity to raise awareness around autism and its effects on individuals and their families as well as the chance to raise money to be used for critical research. “Our goal is to raise $ 10,000, but really, I would like to blow that out of the water and raise $ 19,340-a dollar for every foot. happy with anything we've raised. ”

To help Jackie meet her goal, visit her page on Autism Speaks.

For more information on autism awareness and research, visit Autism Speaks .