Participants in the ‘Wheels of Love’ charity ride take in the breathtaking views in the north of Israel last week.More than fifty Americans joined 100 cyclists from Israel last week for the 4th annual ‘Wheels of Love’ bikeathon. The 5-day, 360 kilometer hike on wheels from the city of Ma’alot in the north to Jerusalem, raised money for Alyn Hospital in Jerusalem; Israel’s only rehabilitation center for infants, children, and teenagers who require intensive therapy for disabilities.

Sponsorships for the riders this year are expected to total $1 million for the hospital this year. Last year’s ‘Wheels of Love’ charity ride included 100 participants who raised more than $500,000.

“It’s hard to squeeze in 400 km in such a tiny country, especially when we are only riding from the Galilee to Jerusalem, but this is a “can do” country, and Alyn is quite a “can do” place itself,” said Nina Alon, the coordinator of the ‘Wheels of Love’ and a third time bikeathon participant. “This was a harder ride physically than past ones, but we went through beautiful areas and the spirit of the riders was amazing. It was very powerful,” said Alon.

For the riders who came from the U.S., the ride was a true once in a lifetime experience. ‘I like the idea that the hospital serves both Arab and Jewish children,’ says Michael McKenna, an attorney from Chicago, making his first ride.

Stanley Goldis, a CPA from just outside Philadelphia has been on three bikeathons before in the U.S., but this was his first Alyn ride.

“This was the best organized ride I’ve been on, and also the most difficult and challenging. Those Israeli hills can go on for 10 kilometers.”

According to Alon, there was only mishap on the way, but one that had a silver lining. “On the first day, one rider, Bill Graham from Michigan fell and broke his collarbone. He went to the hospital and got bandaged up, and he acted as a volunteer for the rest of the trip. We called him “good news Bill” because he was always encouraging us, telling us that lunch was soon, or cheering us on over the worst hills.”

The idea for the bikeathon originated with a British immigrant to Israel, Geoffrey Freeman. He approached the hospital about including Alyn’s children as beneficiaries of the Norwood Ravenswood Israel Charity Bike Ride, an event in which British cyclists ride for charity in Israel. In the years that followed other riders from Israel joined the ride. In 1998 and 1999 four cyclists represented Alyn and a record number of ten riders signed up for the 2000 event.

The Norwood Ravenswood contingent from England canceled three weeks before the start of the 2000 ride due to violence in the region. However, the ten Alyn riders decided to go ahead, planned a new route and the first all-Israeli Alyn Charity Bike Ride was born. In their ride from Jerusalem to Eilat, they raised over $65,000 for Alyn Hospital. Each successive year, the number of riders has multiplied and the ride was renamed “Wheels of Love.” Last year’s ride from Jerusalem to Eilat raised over $600,000.

Alyn Hospital, established almost 50 years ago, is one of the world’s leading specialists in the active and intensive rehabilitation of children with a broad range of physical disabilities and is the only facility of its kind in Israel. Alyn is a non-profit organization treating physically handicapped children and adolescents, regardless of religion or ethnic background.

Over the years Alyn Hospital has developed a wealth of expertise in such fields as the treatment of trauma and head injuries from road accidents, neuromuscular diseases, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, congenital deformities, general pediatric orthopedics, infants needing intermediate ventilation, special feeding management, rehabilitation of cancer patients, burns victims and children with developmental delay.

Three separate units implement the Hospital’s active rehabilitation program: intensive care for comatose patients and acute spinal injuries; trauma and post-surgical care; and elective rehabilitation.

In July, the hospital hosted American actor Christopher Reeve, who met with both doctors and patients who like him, suffer from paralysis.

“Hearing of Alyn’s inventiveness, and all-encompassing treatment of respirated children piqued his interest so much, that he had to include a visit to Alyn in his limited schedule,” said Alon.

According to Alon, bicycles are not only used in the annual bikeathon, but also as a means of therapy and exercise for the patients. Those that are unable to ride themselves are pulled around in their wheelchairs, while those that have some mobility learn to ride bikes to increase their coordination.

At the end of the five day trip, the tired cyclists made their way to the Alyn facilities in Jerusalem where they were enthusiastically met by the hospital’s residents and staff.

“We were greeted by a large group of residents, and there was a big happening for them and the families of the riders, with jugglers, clowns, face painting. We showed up and there was a trumpet greeting, a huge shofar blast, and they sang ‘Shalom Aleichem’,” said Alon.

Goldis says that the culmination of the ride combined with the outpouring of good will and appreciation has left him on natural high.

“I didn’t start crying – although a lot of the riders did. It was overwhelming to receive a greeting like that – extremely emotional,” he said.

For Goldis, the connection to the patients at Alyn struck very close to home and was the impetus behind his decision to travel to Israel for the ride.

“I was in a serious bike accident almost a year ago, and was in the hospital for 22 days. As I was going through therapy, a friend mentioned to me about this rehabilitation hospital for children in Israel and their annual ride. When I heard the word ‘rehabilitation’, I immediately went on their website and got the information. I know rehabilitation works, because I’ve gone through it. To think that I could have been one of those kids, that was my motivation for coming on the ride,” he said.

Even as he prepared to leave Israel to return to the U.S., Goldis was already sure in his mind he’d be back for next year’s “Wheels of Love.”
“The people and the whole atmosphere was just great. It made you feel like it was one gigantic family, whether you were from Israel or the States. In the U.S., many of the rides like this are profit oriented with much of the money going to the organizers. What unified us here is that we’re doing it for the kids.”