- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Nearly 14 years ago, Cafe Europa owner Michael Simko had ambitious plans for his 50th birthday. He had always been athletic: running track, playing hockey, even joining a professional soccer team in his native Slovakia. He also played in adult leagues in Virginia Beach — until he finally decided he no longer liked the idea of having torn ligaments and cracked ribs in his 50s.
So he went for something a little less high-impact, if no less ambitious. He figured he would tackle the 37-mile hike to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest freestanding peak on the map. The trek is a longstanding dream from his youth.
“I’m from Europe — and as a kid, you know, we did a lot of climbing in the Tatras over there,” he said. “Kilimanjaro was kind of a big thing for us back then.”
But the world had other plans. Instead, his Portsmouth restaurant was beset first by Midtown Tunnel construction and then the worldwide housing crisis of 2008. He was needed closer to home.
“So I gave up on it,” he said. “But it was always on the back of my mind.”
Starting around two years ago, he picked his dream up again. This time, before the pandemic was even a mote on the horizon, he planned his trip for 2020.
“You know, I thought it would be a good time,” he said, laughing.
Now, with the advent of the COVID vaccine, he finally will be able to make the trip. He’ll be climbing the African mountain as a benefit for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which has a fundraising arm in Norfolk. It’s a hospital with a meaningful connection to Simko, after the tragic health struggles of a neighbor’s daughter, Suzanne, also a friend of Simko’s daughter.
“At the age of 3 she was diagnosed with neuroblastoma,” Simko remembered. “And after six months when they went from hospital to hospital, the doctors told them they can do nothing about it. So they wind up going to St. Jude, and they gave five more years to Suzanne.”
And so he asked his neighbor: Do you think St. Jude would be interested in me doing a fundraiser? St. Jude took it from there, said Simko, setting up a website to accept donations to commemorate the trip.
Simko is funding the trip, but is taking donations for the hospital through a website at bit.ly/StJudeTrek. He’s already raised nearly $8,000 over the past three months, including a personal donation of $500. This week through Saturday, his Portsmouth restaurant also is donating 10% of its profits to the hospital.
“To me, it was, it was like, you know what they do? They are striving for the heights, for the peak,” Simko said. As I’m going to be trying to get to the top, that’s what they do in their field. They try to conquer the cancer.”
Simko will leave June 11 — a 13-hour flight he worries will leave him bored silly — and is raising funds for St. Jude throughout. And after a nearly seven-day hike to the top of the mountain, he said, he’ll be raising a banner for St. Jude 19,000 feet in the sky.
“We’ll take a picture,” he said.
In the meantime, he’s been training to make sure he gets to the top.
“I’ve been hammering away at Mount Trashmore,” he said. “You know, they have a stairway that has 80 steps. You go up and down 24 times, that means you’ve climbed the Empire State Building. So I do that at least once a week, and then I usually go up and down the hill. So that’s good training. I feel pretty confident about it.”
The fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital runs until Saturday at Cafe Europa, 319 High St, Portsmouth, 757-399-6652, cafeeuropa.com. Direct donations also accepted at bit.ly/StJudeTrek.