Wheelchair enhances annual OneFamily Negev hike

Wheelchair enhances annual OneFamily Negev hike

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Peter Ekstein takes part in the Negev hike in a Patatrekker wheelchair.

For the past nine years, OneFamily Canada has been leading a cross-Israel hike. This year, from Oct. 3 to Nov. 3, a group of 75 hikers from Canada, the United States and Britain journeyed through the Negev, raising $450,000 for the OneFamily Fund, an organization that supports victims of terror in Israel.

OneFamily’s Canada executive director Gary Tile said it was the most successful one to date. 

“It allows us to bring Canadians to the people we support. Every day there are literally dozens of victims of terror who are hiking with us, visiting us, hanging out,” Tile said. “There’s a real interaction between the people we support and the people that are raising money,” he said. The group, made up mainly of those from Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, hiked with individuals affected by acts of terror and also spent time at a OneFamily Canada-sponsored retreat for bereaved women.

The hike had an added element this year: OneFamily worked with Paratrek, an Israeli start-up that provides hiking solutions for people with physical challenges.

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This meant those with physical disabilities were able to participate. Businessman Peter Ekstein, who lives in Toronto, helped jumpstart this initiative based on his own personal experiences.

A truck hit Ekstein in the summer of 2015 while he was out for a jog, and he suffered a serious spinal cord injury.  “Basically, the doctors didn’t give me much hope of ever being able to walk again,” he said.

After lots of rehabilitation, he has some functionality in his legs and can walk under some conditions with the help of assistive devices, such as ski poles.

But while he was in Israel this past summer, he learned of Paratrek and approached OneFamily – an organization he’s supported for many years – about using the company and its proprietary Paratrekkers, a special type of wheelchair, so he could join the annual hike for the portions where he wouldn’t be able to walk.

His idea didn’t end there: he wanted Paratrek to help bring injured soldiers and victims of terror on the hike, thinking perhaps it would give them an opportunity to try something they never thought they’d do again. “And everybody thought it was a great idea, so we went forward with it,” he said.

Ekstein describes the experience as magical, a sentiment echoed by Tile.

Both men recalled how at the start of each day, group members got to choose which type of trek they wanted to go on. And as the five-day trip progressed, more and more opted to join the Paratrek group.

The experience exceeded Ekstein’s expectation on a number of levels.

“I thought I’d be able to walk 10 per cent of the time and have these guys [from Paratrek] help me the other 90 per cent. It kind of turned out opposite.”

It also helped change the tenor of the trip, making it more emotional and meaningful for all of those involved.

Tile hopes OneFamily continues with this initiative in future iterations of the program. “To find this organization that was able to be inclusive of injured victims was a very welcome addition to what was a great program,” he said.

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Ekstein, who hiked with his sister and his wife, Stella, recalled how on one gruelling day, the group was out past sundown and had yet to clear a steep hill. Everyone helped one another get down safely, and that, he said, embodied the spirit of the whole trip.

“It wasn’t a bunch of individuals getting from the start to the finish,” Ekstein said. “It was a team effort. It was the whole team moving along until finally that day’s hike was done.”