For the past year, every Wednesday afternoon Rocky Brody leaves her mosaic studio in Alon Shvut to volunteer her time with the Swift and the Bold cyclists. Less than an hour away in Jerusalem, Adina Elbaz, a former patient of the ALYN Hospital, cuts short her daily routine to join Rocky for a training ride. This is not, however, your ordinary cycling group. The Swift and the Bold is a group of dedicated volunteers from all over Israel and a group of extraordinary children, patients and former patients between the ages of 10-22, who come together to train for the annual 5-day bike ride, “Wheels of Love.” The ride, attended by 600 cyclists from around the world, operates in the model of “riding for a cause,” in which each rider undertakes to raise funds for Israel’s only paediatric rehabilitation hospital, ALYN. There are many teams that take part, but, without a doubt, the most inspiring and determined team is the Swift and the Bold, five of whom tackle the Jerusalem hills on their hand-bikes, or those like Rocky and Adina, who ride on tandem bikes. It is here that friendships are made sharing together the bumps of the ride both physically and emotionally.
Adina Elbaz, now aged 22, was in a car accident six years ago that left her with a major head injury. She was unable to walk, talk or eat unassisted after the accident yet today she is starting her studies in BioTechnology. She accredits much of her journey back to herself to the eighteen months of intensive rehabilitation work that she received at ALYN and the subsequent years of care and support she has received from the hospital since leaving the full-time care. The first time Adina heard about the possibility of cycling on the team was when Ruth Vitztum, the initiator of the Swift and Bold ALYN team riders, turned her and told her that one day she would be riding a bike by herself. Adina remembers laughing loudly, as for her, it was a hilarious concept, as she could barely get her balance on a tricycle. However, five years ago, Adina participated in the Wheels of Love bike ride for the first time on a tandem bike, with Rocky sitting up front.
Rocky, mother to six sons, is originally from Chicago and moved to Israel sixteen years ago with her husband and family. “At the beginning, I was really nervous that I wouldn’t be strong enough to carry the weight of the two of us” says Rocky. But there was an instant connection and Rocky recalls how it was Adina who encouraged her and not the other way round when they first attempted to ride up the hills together. “We’ve totally got this,” Adina would shout so that Rocky could hear. “I’ve been in worse places. We can do it!” Now five years after first riding together, Rocky adds, “I now know since we started this journey, that we can do anything together.”
The Swift and Bold ALYN Riders is the brainchild of physiotherapist Ruth Vitztum, who joined the ALYN Hospital staff seven years ago. The ALYN hospital is a world leader in the field of diagnosis and rehabilitation of children, in which multidisciplinary expertise has been developed in the rehabilitative treatment of children and youth. A bike rider herself, in her first year at ALYN she rode in the Wheels of Love as a participant. By her second year, Vitztum felt that some of the children she was treating could participate. At first, the children and the families did not believe it possible. Some could not walk, some could only take assisted steps – and she was asking them to ride 2 km! It seemed a daunting if not impossible task. But the children rose to the challenge and Vitztum saw a remarkable change. In the first group, there were 10 brave children and 10 brave families who, by the end of a five-week training course, looked at each other completely differently. The “dream of” 2 km grew to 10 km. Vitztum observed an improvement not only in the children’s health but in their self-confidence. Slowly, the parents who had been so used to working schedules around treatment times now had to “switch gear” and arrange their schedules around training sessions. Children who previously could not participate in after-school activities were now able to particpate in a healthy, social yet physically challenging and, most importantly, fun weekly activity with other kids.
Thanks to generous donations, the ALYN Hospital is able to sponsor the Swift and Bold riders for the seventh time, financially backing the activity in every aspect, believing that part of the rehabilitation process for children is being able to participate in community life to the greatest extent possible. “Making sure every child gets the chance to overcome their physical challenges and reach their maximum developmental potential is what drives us here at ALYN,” explains Dr. Maurit Beeri, director general of ALYN. “ALYN Hospital’s high quality and infinite dedication to every child relies on the possibilities afforded to us by our annual Wheels of Love Ride. Moreover, the Ride has also become a tool in the rehabilitation process itself – allowing ALYN patients and alumni to train and participate in the Ride accompanied by ALYN’s therapists and dedicated volunteers.” Vitztum, together with Ofer Shetal, who rides with a prosthetic leg having lost his limb following a motorbike accident, plan an individual training schedule for each child in order that they can achieve their own goal. Ofer comes from the nonprofit organization “Etgarim,” which is dedicated to the empowerment and social integration of people with disabilities through outdoor sports.
“As the new season of training begins this November, our hope is that all the kids in the group will be able to participate in the 20th Wheels of Love ride a year from now,” says Vitztum.
“It is no easy ride,” says Rocky. There needs to be a high level of coordination between the riders, especially when the physical ability of the two riders is very different. ”Sometimes it is even mind over matter. We have to find that inner strength,” admits Rocky when she says that she and Adina have to be fully focused to get up the hills on the dirt terrain off road route, especially when they are on the ride with other cyclists.
“We are both motivated and helped by the other cyclists that we’re riding next to and that’s the way we get to the finish line! We know that we are part of the Wheels of Love family,” says Adina.
Avia Zavit, from Jerusalem, is 11 years old and has just completed his second Wheels of Love ride. Avia has been treated at ALYN for the past two years and Shlomit is one of the brave parents who has watched her child gain independence and self-confidence in becoming a staunch member of the Swift and the Bold bike team. “Look at him grinning,” smiles his mother, Shlomit, at the end of the ride, as his father and siblings look on in pride on the final day. Avia finds it challenging to walk even the shortest distance assisted and yet on the bike he is a full partner in the ride. Avia’s team-mate on the tandem is Yulai Feldman, an avid cyclist from Har Adar. They trained together for a full year. “Riding a tandem is not easy,” says Yulai. “It’s physically hard training for me and it is hard, too, for Avia. But we work together. He contributes his part to the best of his ability and I try and ride my hardest for him. We are a team.” Shlomit adds regarding the training sessions, “It’s the highlight of his week,” and recalls how worried she had been about Avia when he left for the day on his first bike ride. He had never been on a trip by himself “not like other kids that go off on a school trip every year,” said Shlomit. She explained that because of his inability to walk by himself, it was very hard to give him such independence – and yet here he was leaving at 5 a.m. to go off for a whole day and ride a bike.
On average, 350 cyclists from Israel and 250 cyclists from abroad gather together to complete six different bicycle routes that over the years have crossed the country north to south, east to west on the Wheels of Love Bike Ride. In 2018, the fundraising bike ride raised a record 3.5 million dollars that will go to help bridge the gap between the hospital’s actual expenditure, the quality multidisciplinary rehabilitation treatment it provides, and the reimbursement of the regular official payment received for each hospitalized child. The total gap is about $70 per child per day and the difference in treatment roughly costs the hospital $21,000 a day.
Dr. Beeri explains, “The funds raised allow us to give the children the treatments and therapies they require, rather than limit the care to the basic needs that are covered by the Israeli national health care system. Every additional penny goes toward additional therapists, a wider selection of emotional support modalities, innovative interdisciplinary projects and extra hands-on care. It helps us give the child that extra chance that might just make all the difference in the world. Without the Wheels of Love Ride, ALYN could not be the special place it is, and could not enable the miracles we see every week.”
Yulai reflects back at this last ride, “When we are out there riding, I can see that Avia not only inspires me, but he inspires all the other riders around us to make it to the end. We all know why we are riding, it is for such a great cause.”
All the costs for the Swift and Bold Riders are carried by the ALYN hospital. “Being on a bike has given these kids independence and mobility. We just needed to find the right bike for each one, says Ruth Vitztum. “More importantly, being a successful rider enables the children to redefine themselves no longer by their disabilities but by their riding capabilities.”
Registration for the 20th Wheels of Love 2019 opens at the end of November.
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