It’s not every day that you see a group of 10- to 70-year-olds trek - king across the country. But for participants in AKIM-Jerusalem’s Miles for Smiles trek, an annual three-day hike has become quite the norm.This year’s trek marks the 13th annual hike that raises funds for AKIM-Jerusalem.In honor of the project’s bar mitzva year, some of the regular walkers sat down to discuss what makes them take time out each year to cover large parts of Israel on foot.
“It’s tough, but it’s a lot of fun,” says Ian Brown, originally from Perth, Australia. He is on the committee that chooses the route, pre-walks it and then leads the actual trek. “You find places that you’ve driven past but didn’t really see.”“What makes it interesting from year to year is the chemistry between the people,” says Renee Miller, “a proud Jerusalemite” from New York who made aliya in 1999. “No one is ever sorry that they join us,” she adds.This year’s trek, from March 10 to 12, will take place down South and has been named Southern Comfort.“We’re going to the South this year because we know that it was hit hard,” says Peter Tobias from England, who made aliya in 2005. At 70, he is the group’s oldest member. He is on the pre-trek planning committee and is one of the fastest walkers in the group.AKIM-Jerusalem is an organization that promotes the welfare of people with intellectual disabilities and developmental impairments. The organization cares for more than 150 people through its hostels, group homes and apartments, as well as through family support centers.The money from the hike will go toward specific projects, such as installing a new elevator in the Beit Julia hostel and setting up security-related equipment and paving a wheelchair-suitable path at Beit Rachel Straus, the organization’s new center. Some of the money will also go toward implementing “personal improvement” plans for residents in which objectives for an improved quality of life will be set for each of them.The trek, which will extend from Arad to the Dead Sea, is set to include some exciting routes.“We’re going very much off the beaten track,” says Tobias.A highlight, according to the organizers, will be Nahal Hemar.“It actually is stunning,” says Brown.“From the top of Hemar we have stunning views of Mount Sdom.” Alongside these gorgeous views, he adds, are some 100-meter-high cliffs.The organizers try to strike a balance between a challenge and a walk that is suitable for most participants. The pretrek committee begins exploring options three to four months before the hike, and then its members walk the trail to make sure it fits the demands.“We want it to be fun and exciting,” Brown says, while taking into account safety considerations such as avoiding perilous cliffs. “We did one nahal [river valley] on a pre-trek that was magnificent, but there were two parts that Spiderman would have had trouble traversing.”“The walking doesn’t require that much commitment,” he says. “It’s not so difficult that you need to train that much.”The routes include shortcuts for people who don’t fancy tackling the very challenging parts, and the organizers always accommodate the pace of slower walkers.Aside from that, a jeep accompanies the hike and is always nearby in case of emergency or fatigue.In the jeep is England-born Miriam Marcus, AKIM-Jerusalem’s senior executive for resource development and external affairs. As well as organizing the trip, she accompanies the group and takes care of all the logistical aspects, including snacks. A big fan of the annual event, she believes that it helps people connect with the organization.“People have become more than once- a-year walkers,” she says.The group is comprised of some 40 walkers of all ages.“I would love it to be double that or even more,” Marcus says.Each participant is asked to raise $1,800 in sponsorship, as well as pay a registration fee that covers about two-thirds of the costs. While the target amount is $1,800, the organizers won’t turn down people who raised a smaller amount.“We expect people to make an effort,” Brown says. “Anything they raise is obviously good.”The idea of a sponsored activity is a bit of a foreign one in Israel, where people usually just donate a sum of money.“If you grew up in Israel, it’s a very alien thing,” says Tobias.“In Israel, people think it’s a bit weird,” Brown agrees, adding that the trip is well received by the Anglo community and that about 80 percent of the walkers are English speakers.They are quick to point out, however, that the group is diverse and that participants come from all different back - grounds, something “which also makes it interesting,” says Miller.The group includes men, women, families – last year Tobias hiked with his son and grandson – and foreign AKIM-Jerusa - lem volunteers, who get a chance to see the country.The hike is organized so that participants don’t have to worry about a thing once they start walking.“People more or less have to turn up in appropriate clothing. We provide breakfast, lunch and dinner,” says Brown.“It’s a treat,” Miller agrees.Each day’s walk starts at around 8 a.m. and finishes at about 6 p.m. Evenings are usually quiet, as people turn in early to re - cover from the walk and gather strength for the next day.“By nine o’clock, no one’s around,” says Marcus.At the end of the this year’s trek, a slap- up meal will await the walkers in Arad.This “goes back to trying to support the economy in the South,” says Tobias, while Marcus adds that she hopes the event will have a “trickle-on effect” in the area.Supporting areas that have been struck by disaster isn’t a new thing for the trekkers. After the Carmel Forest fire in 2010, for example, the orga - nization had its trek there. Other treks have included parts of the Golan trail, the Sea to Sea trail from the Mediter - ranean to the Kinneret, and last year the group walked from the Gilboa Mountain to Mount Tabor.All the walk - ers stress the social aspect of the event.“People have made themselves really close friends from joining the trek and meeting new people,” Marcus says.“We’re raising money, but you get a lot out of it,” adds Miller. “It’s just fun; it’s great.”Alongside the social aspect is the challenge involved in the trek itself.Marcus recalls a story from the first hike when a person who had suffered a heart attack the previous year de - cided to join. Everyone had already finished the trek, and he was asked whether he wanted to finish the last part by car. “I’m going to walk this on my own two feet to prove that I can do it,” he said. “Everyone was so impressed with that he’d done,” Marcus recounts.Registration for the March trek is still open, and the walkers would love to see some new faces.“Please come to our bar mitzva,” says Miller.“It will be a great party,” Marcus adds.