There’s an old expression often used during the holidays, “It’s better to give than receive.” Obviously, Bernie Madoff wasn’t a big believer. His motto might have been, “Better to rip off than get ripped off.” It’s infuriating that he’s flourishing in jail as younger inmates actually look up to him. (Good grief.) The least Madoff could do is be miserable.

I mention the expression because of an inspiring event that takes place bi-annually in the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s called “Wheel to the Sea.” It features volunteers who help disabled hikers, most of whom are in wheelchairs, traverse five miles of rigorous terrain from the valley to the beach (not necessarily easy for an able-bodied person).

For the past 26 years, Wheel has been sponsored by the Wilderness Institute, which operates therapeutic programs for veterans and others throughout California. Founder Brad Childs’ father was a Pearl Harbor attack survivor and his three older brothers are Vietnam conflict veterans.

The fall event took place two weeks ago and I cajoled my photographer friend, Matt Hynes, to shoot some images. (A column of mine in March about tennis star Maria Sharapova included a photo of her about to blast the cover off a ball. That was Matt’s.)

While I thought Matt was doing me the favor in photographing these brave folks, his spirits were lifted. As he told a friend, “You should have seen their joy and sense of accomplishment when we finally reached PCH and they could see the ocean.”

With the logistics of picking up the hikers, the day started at 8 a.m., which meant Matt had to rise and shine at 6 a.m. (For me that would be torture but fortunately Matt’s an early riser.) In addition, he volunteered to drive Steven Lefkowitz (pictured above) there and back, which made it an even longer day.

Breakfast at Point Mugu State Park was served around 10 a.m. And then the adventure began as the group embarked on a naturalist-led hike through the park. Friday it rained and Sunday it was cold. But on Saturday the weather was pristine and the views were spectacular. Actually, in past years when there was wet weather and mud or stream crossing obstacles, they’ve proven only to be opportunities for teamwork and trust building.

Many hours later the hike culminated at Sycamore Cove State Beach where the CHP generously provided officers for the group’s safe crossing of PCH. Using specialized wheelchairs, the hikers got to go to the water’s edge, something many haven’t done in years. Finally, the long, fun-filled day ended with a family-style barbecue.

“Wheels to the Sea” reaches out to individuals in wheelchairs, particularly military veterans and their families. Non-wheelchair users with traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, blindness, deafness or debilitating illnesses, are also encouraged to join in. This fall there was an enthusiastic contingent from West L.A. Cal Vet Home.

The Wilderness Institute gets assistance for Wheel from the Kiwanis Clubs of Thousand Oaks, Canoga Park and Northridge, the Mountains Recreation Conservation Authority, the Volunteer Mountain Bike Unit, and California State Parks. Financial donors include: the Kiwanis Club of Thousand Oaks, Ruth and David Henke, The Childs Fund and individual donors. (And maybe you?)

The event will take place again on May 5, 2012. If you’d like to participate please go to www.WildernessInstitute.com. If you join as a hiker or a volunteer you won’t soon forget the experience. It will likely leave you with a renewed faith in the better angels of humanity. (As opposed to the Madoffs of the world.) If you don’t believe me, just ask my friend, Matt.

Matt Hynes’ photography can be found at matthynesphotography.smugmug.com. Jack can be reached at Jnsmdp@aol.com.

Print Friendly