TORONTO — There was a sense of camaraderie and hope last week at Adath Israel Congregation as scores of charity-minded cyclists and their sponsors gathered to celebrate their fundraising accomplishments at a gala in honour of Israel’s Alyn Hospital.
Israel’s consul general to Toronto, Amir Gissin, and American Friends of Alyn executive director Cathy Lanyard. [Melnick Studios Inc. photo]
Located in Jerusalem, Alyn is one of the world’s foremost pediatric rehabilitation centres, focusing specifically on treating children with special needs for the past 76 years.
Last week’s Toronto event, titled “Memories and Dreams Night,” was jointly organized by both the American and Canadian Friends of Alyn charities– the latter is a burgeoning support chapter of the former – and marked the first time members of the Canadian group were formally fêted for their charitable work.
Canadian participants raised $500,000 of the $3 million raised for the hospital last year in the annual Wheels of Love bike ride, a five-day trek across Israel.
To qualify for a spot on the tour, each rider must guarantee $2,000 in sponsorship and pay a registration fee for the trip to Israel.
The ride was started in 2000 by nine Israeli cyclists who wanted to raise money for the hospital and has since expanded to some 500 riders from 13 countries, including 75 from Canada last year (up from 57 in 2006).
The increased Canadian presence drew the eye of Cathy Lanyard, executive director of the New York-based charity, who travelled to Toronto to be at the event and congratulate the Canuck riders.
Also present at the event was Israel’s consul general to Toronto, Amir Gissin.
Joel Kula, director for Alyn Canada and Israel Ellis, co-chair of the event, have been the driving volunteer force behind the Canadian Alyn grassroots movement for the past few years.
“We’re trying to increase awareness of Alyn,” Kula told The CJN. “The hospital has needs 365 days a year.”
Kula said he first became aware of the hospital through his participation on an action committee at Beit Rayim Synagogue.
“We stumbled on Alyn on the Internet and immediately started allotting funds to it,” he said.
Like many others at the Adath Israel event, both Kula and Ellis were proud repeat riders.
Ellis recalled his riding experiences.
“There’s times when you’re on the bike and you just want to get off,” he said. “But as the challenges intensified, I thought about the children of Alyn… and how every day of their lives represents a challenge greater than mine.”
He added that the reason for hosting a Canadian Alyn event was to “establish a stronger group to advocate for Canadian riders and consolidate the idea of ‘chevrah.’”
Lanyard told The CJN she was in town not only to attend the event, but also to promote another Alyn initiative called the Mitzvah of Love, which encourages school children to sponsor events to support the hospital.
“Wheels of Love has put a face to Alyn. We have ordinary people who push themselves beyond their normal maximums, because they care and they can,” Lanyard said. “[Mitzvah of Love] is about empowering a kid to embrace their own [charitable instincts]. It’s about healing the world one step at a time.”
After a video presentation that showed the work Alyn does with severely disabled children, Gissin addressed the crowd.
But instead of talking politics – his usual topic – Gissin opened up on a personal level to discuss how his role as a father to a child with special needs was influenced by what he’s seen at Alyn.
“Twenty-five years ago… I spent three months visiting a close friend in Alyn. While there, I saw a bed with a baby girl who had been abandoned by her family because of terrible disabilities,” Gissin said.
“She had a life expectancy of less than a year. But Alyn staff took it upon themselves to adopt this child. She was carried by nurses all hours of the day. That was a gift of love [and] it was the first time I was exposed to what love can do. It was a lesson for life.”
He continued, choked by emotion: “I’ve done some important things in my life. But before everything else, I’m a father. Nothing has prepared me better for [fathering a child with special needs] than that experience. Nothing. They deserve your support.”
The next Wheels of Love ride is scheduled for Nov. 9 to 13 in Jerusalem.
For more information, visit www.alynus.org.