Walking for AKIM

AKIM-Jerusalem trek leader Ian Brown on a sponsored walk. (photo credit: MIRIAM MARCUS)
AKIM-Jerusalem trek leader Ian Brown on a sponsored walk.
(photo credit: MIRIAM MARCUS)
David Schottenfels is happily incredulous. “We are helping people out by having a good time,” he says. The fun to which the American-born lawyer refers is the annual charity walk for the Jerusalem branch of AKIM. AKIM is a Hebrew acronym for the “Association for the Habil- itation of the Intellectually Disabled.”
The said outlet of the national organization, which provides care and a range of services for intel- lectually challenged and developmentally disabled persons and their families, has been in business for 61 years now. All told, AKIM Israel supports 34,000 children, teenagers, adults, and senior citizens, as well as their 130,000 family members, and contin- ues to adapt and to develop programs in order to meet the needs of its clients.
That, naturally, does not come cheap, and AKIM-Jerusalem takes a proactive approach to keep- ing its books balanced by running a range of fund-raising initiatives, including an annual three- day trek. This year’s walk, the 14th edition of the activity, will take place May 17-19, and will follow a largely walker-friendly route in the Upper Galilee, from Ramot Naftali to Safed.
AKIM-Jerusalem started business in 1955 and, today, serves 170 residents in three hostels and 17 apartments. It also administers a Family Support Center, which offers services for an additional 200 households that have a family member with special needs who lives at home. These include an extend- ed school day program for children aged seven to 15, Lev Ad Habayit (Heart to the Home) home care support and a Supportive Environment project. AKIM-Jerusalem operates out of Rachel Strauss House, a handsomely appointed old building in the Baka neighborhood, which is the first independent community-based center in Jerusalem. I was given the grand tour by resource development manager Miriam Marcus, and I caught people of various ages working out in the gym, beating out some complex rhythms on hand drums in the music room, and producing works of art in a creativity area. There is also the magical Snoezelen room, where clients with severe communication difficulties can chill out on mattresses while they listen to music of their choice and bask in the glow of some funky lighting fixtures. It is a multi-sensory facility used as part of a therapeutic process designed to stimulate the dif- ferent senses. I must say, I found my brief spell in the room a delightfully relaxing, if not hypnotic, experience. Schottenfels conceived the idea for the annual charity trek and says it was spawned by default. “I had recently become the chairman [of the AKIM-Je- rusalem board of management] and had been sub- jected to an annual dinner,” he says somewhat tongue in cheek. “Most people don’t like annual dinners, but I have extreme reactions to them.” This was clearly no laughing matter. “There was no way I could continue being involved with AKIM if it meant I had to go to an annual dinner every year,” he declares.
The said repast was, of course, a means of raising much-needed funds for the association, and Schot- tenfels soon replaced the black tie and evening gown vittles event with three days of healthy alfres- co exercise.
“I looked around for an alternative and came up with this one,” he says, confessing the personal motivation ulterior motive. “I like trekking and the trek is one of the highlights of my year,” he admits. “I do the pre-treks with Ian. We make sure the routes are acceptable, and that we’re not going to get lost. And the preparation and the actual trek are both a positive experience.”
The aforementioned trek planner is Austra- lian-born Jerusalemite Ian Brown, who also owns up to “exploiting” AKIM-Jerusalem to get back on the trail.
“When I was on hachshara , when I was 18 or so, I loved the hikes we did, but when I made aliya I didn’t do much [walking],” he says. “I was busy working, bringing up kids and other stuff, but I hadn’t really done anything until I started doing the AKIM hikes about 13 or 14 years ago.”
That enforced hiatus left its painful mark on Brown. “I was totally unprepared for the first walk 14 years ago. I wasn’t even aware of the walk until three days before it happened. They just said come along. I hadn’t walked for so many years. I pulled on an old pair of boots and by the second day I was covered in blisters.”
It was a chastening experience which led to bigger and better things, including Brown’s decision to orchestrate the walk himself. “The next year I got better boots, the year after that I got walking sticks, and now I know what I’m doing and I can get through the three days without discomfort,” he says with a smile.
But, at the end of the day, the AKIM-Jerusalem chairman of the board and trek honcho get out there with their willing able fellow walkers – there will be around 70 of them, all told, next week – fully aware of why they are out there in all weathers. “We have had days when it’s been 40 degrees, and we’ve had three days of rain, and we had a really cold day up near Arad one year,” says Brown, “but, of course, raising funds for AKIM is the motivation. The fact that we enjoy what we do is great, but everyone needs help and I picked this charity.”
While, of course, the monetary bottom line is of the utmost importance, both Schottenfels and Brown feel that the annual charity walk is also an invaluable bonding experience which helps to expand the AKIM-Jerusalem support hinterland.
“That’s one of the most positive things about the walk, for us,” says Schottenfels. “It’s not just a financial thing. As a result of the trek we have a much broader public that’s interested in AKIM than we would otherwise have had. That’s a very positive thing. And it’s not just the trekkers. The trekkers raise their money from their friends and family, so they get the connection with AKIM as well. That’s a very positive aspect of the walk.”
Next week’s hike will take in some of the country’s loveliest nature spots, including Nahal Amud and Nahal Meron, where flora still abounds and the water still flows.
“We all have a great time, and you have to get peo- ple involved and get them excited about the whole exercise,” notes Brown. “I sometimes bring my kids along, and you get all sorts of people coming along.” That also applies to a broad age bracket. “I think the youngest trekker has been about seven or eight, and last year we had someone who was 83, and he’s coming again this year. And he’s one of the best hikers, I can tell you.”
Can’t be bad – getting three days of lungfuls of good clean air, partaking in invigorating exercise, and raising charity for a worthy cause to boot. The more the merrier. •
For more information about the AKIM-Jerusalem charity walk, and how to make a donation: trek.akim-jerusalem.org.i