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Alum leads climb

Mel Flanagan | Monday, August 27, 2012

In November 2009, a group of about 20 students, led by Tom Lillig, Class of 1995, climbed to the 17,160-foot summit of Mount Iztaccihuatl in Mexico.

The climb was an incredible feat by itself, but the trip’s accomplishment was amplified by the fact that half of the students were blind.

The trip was one of many sponsored by No Barriers U.S.A., a non-profit organization Lillig is the board president of. No Barriers aims to provide transformative experiences for students and veteran soldiers who would not otherwise have had an opportunity to see the world, he said.

“Our goal is to encourage people to live what we call a no-barriers lifestyle, in which whatever barrier they’re facing in life … they really believe that whatever is within them is stronger than what’s in their way,” Lillig said.

The organization specializes in taking trips with wounded soldiers and physically and economically disadvantaged students.

Lillig said No Barriers, which was founded in 2003, typically run around 20 trips per year and has taken roughly 5,000 people on the expeditions.

Examples of past trips include mountain climbing experiences, cultural immersion trips and white-water rafting adventures.

“We just recently did a trip this summer with a mixed group of deaf students and hearing students,” Lillig said. “We try and tailor the trip so there is really a breaking down of barriers that takes place between the deaf students and hearing students.”

Although the students typically bond easily, Lillig said the challenge comes from learning a system of helping each other.

“Climbing a mountain is a dangerous thing,” he said. “When you have a blind student, what you need to do is make sure those blind students are able to communicate and be communicated with by the sighted students that are helping them up the mountain.”

For the 2009 climb in Mexico, Lillig said bells were placed on the poles of the sighted students who were in front of the blind students. The blind students were able to follow the sound of the bells and hear exactly where they should walk.

Lillig said that particular trip was the most inspirational experience he has had with No Barriers.

“All the blind students made it to the top,” he said. “I’m most proud of that fact.”

Lillig, who has served as board president since the inception of No Barriers, said he became involved with the non-profit to help others realize the extent of what they can do in life, regardless of the abilities they were given.

“Regardless of who we’re talking about, we’re trying to get them to dig deeper, reach higher,” he said.

At the end of the trips, Lillig said even the advantaged students typically tell him they learned more about themselves during the expedition than from any other experience.

“For them, it really takes that sort of ultimate gift of sharing and understanding what the challenge of being blind, and also the courage the blind students have as they approach this climb,” he said.

Contact Mel Flanagan at