Some run a marathon, others host coffee mornings, but Sophia Dancygier decided the best way to raise money for charity was to step out of her comfort zone. That was how she found herself spending a week adventuring across the frigid forests of Sweden and Norway, 160 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, pulled by a team of racing dogs.
“I’ve never done anything like this – I don’t even ski!” Dancygier admits. “I’m not an outdoorsy person. I just woke up one day and decided I wanted to do something purposeful. If I’d thought about it too long, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Born and raised in Greece, Dancygier moved to London at 18 years old and spent the next 24 years carving out a successful career in the city. Last January, she found herself with a chunk of time between job changes and wondered what she could do with it.
“I thought, ‘How do I best put that time to use and make a difference?’” she explains. “Raising money for charity wasn’t something I’d ever done before, but it was the obvious thing to do.”
Dancygier wanted to support a charity focused on children, and for it to be a smaller enterprise. “The operating model of the charity was important to me,” she says. “I wanted a charity where the money would go directly to children rather than marketing and running costs, but one with a pedigree and a model which has been tested and proven.”
The search led Dancygier to Go Beyond, one of the charities supported by The Telegraph’s Charity Appeal. Having been in operation for 30 years, Go Beyond was tested and would be “impactful for the child, creating memories they’d keep their whole lives”, she says.
Go Beyond’s work, offering breaks to at-risk children, also appealed to Dancygier’s memories of her own childhood. “Some of my most vivid childhood memories are from the summer camps that all kids in Greece go to,” she says.
“I made friends, I met children from different backgrounds and I would stay in touch with them. As someone who didn’t come from a wealthy background, state-subsidised camps helped me gain a lot of experiences I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I knew how impactful being in a different environment can be for children of that age, so I was able to relate to Go Beyond intimately.”
With the charity found, the next challenge was finding a suitable mission for Dancygier to push herself out of her comfort zone.
“I felt like I needed to do something big to get people to donate money,” says Dancygier. “A lot of people haven’t heard of Go Beyond before, so I needed to put them on the map. A marathon wouldn’t cut it. To maximise the impact to the charity, I wanted something big.”
Google turned up the idea of dog-sledding in the Arctic. “I knew it would be a challenge – I grew up in Greece; I hate the cold,” laughs Dancygier. Nevertheless, she booked her place.
In fact, Dancygier left herself only four weeks to prepare and fundraise. The kit list gave her sleepless nights and she ended up knocking on friends’ doors to borrow gear.
A month later she found herself in Kiruna, a mining town in north Sweden, getting a glimpse of the sled she’d be living on and the team of dogs who’d be pulling it. “Four planks fastened together and a team of borderline-wolves,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘How can I do this?’”
She was part of a team of five who would travel through the Arctic together, deep in the land of the Sami, the indigenous reindeer herders who have worked the land for millennia.
“It was hard work,” says Dancygier. “The dogs just want to go fast. You have to temper them because otherwise you’ll have an accident. It was difficult for me, a city person, to tame them, learn how to lead them, and keep myself focused. It’s cold and lonely, you don’t have anyone to talk to. If you take your eyes off the dogs for seconds, you have an accident.”
The team woke at 6am in the mornings when the temperature was around minus 30C to fetch logs and start a fire. Water came from a hole cut in the ice of a frozen lake. They’d feed the dogs a diet of intestines, cow stomachs, bones and fat (“the smell is indescribable, not in a good way”, notes Dancygier) then have their own breakfast.
By 10am they’d be on the move, spending two and a half hours standing on their sleds, before having a short break, followed by another two and a half hours on the sled before it got dark.
There was no electricity – batteries die in extreme cold. There was no toilet so they’d go into the woods. None of the amenities we take for granted were available.
“I wasn’t prepared for the mental challenge,” admits Dancygier. “I struggled with loneliness and the requirement to focus for such a lengthy amount of time. Two and a half hours on a sled may not sound long to you, but you’re standing in the cold wind, with nothing but dogs in front of you, you can’t look at the beautiful scenery, you have to focus on the dogs.
“Two and a half hours felt like a century. It’s exhausting and at the end of the day, you sweat in your thermal sleeping bag in a Sami tipi and then wear the same clothes the next day.”
At the midpoint of the challenge, Dancygier broke down. “I cried for a couple of minutes, but I had to pick myself up and get on with it,” she says. “Your team feels it when you as a leader are not focused. Dogs sense self-doubt and it becomes impossible to lead. I forced myself to be strong because there was no way out. Once I figured that out it got better.”
At this point Dancygier started to really enjoy the adventure. “I remember seeing Arctic fox paw prints in the snow, admiring the blinding whiteness of the ground on a sunny day, and seeing the Northern Lights every night, hearing the howls of wolves in the forest around me. I’ll never forget it,” she says.
“I came away with a real appreciation of what it takes to live a life of self-discipline. I also saw how far trusting my gut could take me.”
Dancygier raised over £22,000 for Go Beyond and the video of her adventure now inspires the children on the breaks. She has also taken up a trustee position in the charity.
“I tell my children that if something is worth doing, do it all the way,” Dancygier says. “Had I done something smaller, less adventurous, or less involved, I wouldn’t have gained as much. The charity wouldn’t have gained as much.
“Investing myself, time and energy into it turned out to be a better experience for everyone involved. I’d say the same to anyone who wants to do something purposeful and impactful with their time – do it in the biggest way you can.”
Go Beyond is one of four charities supported by this year’s Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. The others are the RAF Benevolent Fund, Marie Curie and Race Against Dementia. To make a donation, please visit telegraph.co.uk/2023appeal or call 0151 284 1927