By Linda Levin
From the outside, the camp seems like any other typical frum sleepaway camp. Situated on a beautiful 125-acre campus in Glen Spey, N.Y., the grounds are lovely and well maintained. The camp overlooks a lake where the campers go for boat rides. Everything points to an ordinary overnight camp with great activities.
But taking a closer look inside, you can see how every building and bunkhouse is handicap- accessible. You will see a soda machine where the cans only cost a nickel (which is provided by the camp).
Look carefully, and you cannot help but be inspired. Camp Simcha is home away from home for children with cancer and other chronic illnesses, some of which you most likely have never heard of before: dermatosparaxis, nemaline rod myopathy, rhabdomyosarcoma. For two weeks, these children can have a camp experience just like any able-bodied child.
Each summer Camp Simcha has four overnight camps: Camp Simcha and Camp Simcha Special for girls, and then the same for boys. Camp Simcha Special caters to children with chronic conditions, while Camp Simcha caters to children with cancer, lo aleinu.
Here the children do not have to feel anything but ordinary; their respirators and wheelchairs are the norm; their medical needs are just a small part of an active, fun-packed day.
Starting in 2011, the Tour de Simcha (TDS) has become a major fundraiser for Chai Lifeline/Camp Simcha. The Tour de Simcha is an all-female, fully supported cycling event. Riders embark on a fully-marked route that takes them through the rolling hills of New York and New Jersey. Rest stops are located approximately every 15 miles, replete with supplies and entertainment. SAG, medical and mechanical support accompany the team throughout the ride.
The ride concludes at the entrance of Camp Simcha. All cyclists re-group a half mile before camp and ride into the “world’s greatest finish line” as a united team. Tour de Simcha is met by the elated campers of Camp Simcha Special. Riders are then treated to an awards ceremony and post-ride barbeque.
Hundreds of people, spouses, friends, siblings and children line the finish line to greet and applaud the riders as they make their way to the end of the ride. It’s a magnificent moment. The campers are brought out, with respirators, wheelchairs and other medical equipment, to greet the riders. Those who are able are chosen to put medals around each rider’s neck. There is nary a dry eye to be seen.
On July 19, 219 women rode in TDS. Riders came from all over the N.Y.-N.J. area, as well as three women who came all the way from Montreal, Quebec. Each rider must raise at least $2,500 in order to participate in the ride. Of course, many raised much higher sums. To date, the ride this year has raised over one million dollars.
There were two routes: a 75-mile one or a 45-mile one. During the year, the riders train long and hard, and most attempt to finish all 75 miles. Just to give our readers an idea of how difficult this ride was: The temperature on July 19 was in the vicinity of 90 degrees, and the route to camp took the riders up many high elevations. Some riders had to dismount and walk their bikes up inclines, but then they got right back on and continued.
This year there were 22 riders from the Monsey area, ranging in age and religious affiliation. But at TDS none of that matters. The only thing that matters is bringing simchah to the campers.
I caught up with Libby Akerman of Monsey, who has been riding with TDS since 2012, and asked her for her thoughts. Libby said that she rode beside a rider who pedaled with her hands, since she had no legs. Libby said she learned from this experience that sometimes the most challenged people are the happiest and most motivated. This was the message she wanted to share, as it was so meaningful to her.
M., a recent Monsey high school graduate, rode in TDS this year for the first time. She related that she finished only 30 miles but still felt quite accomplished and happy. She will, im yirtzeh Hashem, try to build up her stamina and ride again in the future.
Another Monsey rider whom I spoke to explained that she was injured during last year’s ride and had to spend a number of months recuperating. But there she was at this year’s event. Nothing could hold her back. The feeling of exhilaration and accomplishment was evident on her shining face!
Gitty, another Monsey rider, biked this year for the first time. She was inspired to join TDS by a friend, a volunteer supervisor of the rest stops along the TDS route. Gitty’s friend sent her some video clips from previous rides, and Gitty was hooked. Gitty signed up last winter and started training after Pesach with four other Monsey women. Although the women in the group were from diverse backgrounds, they were united in their common goal: to do this for the children of Chai Lifeline.
The group got together and trained early in the mornings in Harriman State Park and sometimes in Bear Mountain. Gitty was able to complete the entire 75-mile route in approximately seven hours. “I would absolutely do this again,” Gitty enthusiastically exclaims. “It was fabulous.”
Gitty said she would encourage anyone capable of doing this to jump on the bandwagon. Gitty had the good fortune of meeting the eldest rider at the awards ceremony at camp. The rider, from Teaneck, is 66 years old. She had undergone back surgery and had not been on a bike for 17 years. She told Gitty that she was able to complete 40 miles. Gitty says, “If she could do it, anyone can do it.”
A Monsey friend, hearing about the difficult ride and the perseverance of the riders, emotionally expressed her brachah to them: “Hashem should repay them mile for mile.” Then, on second thought, she said, “Not mile for mile. They should be rewarded minute for minute.”
A well-deserved brachah for a group of amazing champions.