Thumbs Up! Larry Foster, ex-Marine, amputee and Veteran Affairs Employee of the Month, enjoys his day at the beach.

Readers often ask where I get the ideas for my columns. (Some have asked why I bother, but that’s another issue.) Today’s offering has a rather circuitous evolution.

My friend Bruno has a friend named “C” (short for Cynthia) who underwent brain surgery a few years ago after suffering a major stroke. As part of her recovery, C joined TBI Social Network, a support group for those with traumatic brain injuries. TBI meets the third Monday of every month at Carrows on Ocean Park Boulevard. A year ago, I decided to write about the group and one of the members I interviewed was Steven Lefkowitz.

Steven has attended TBI meetings for 13 years. A former UCLA track athlete, Steven’s life changed forever in February of 1980. While in the Andes in Argentina, he was attempting to scale Mount Aconcagua, the tallest peak in the Western Hemisphere. Overnight, and apparently due to insufficient oxygen, Steve suffered a massive brain injury. He was rendered permanently disabled and was hospitalized for the next eight months.

Even disabled, Steven snow skis, river rafts and does yoga. (Just listening to his exercise regimen makes me need a nap.) On Saturday, May 7 along with 40 other disabled “adventurers,” and 125 kind-hearted volunteers who push the wheelchairs, he will participate in a 5-mile hike in the Santa Monica Mountains. “It’s not exactly Mount Aconcagua,” Steven jokes, “but a challenge is a challenge.”

The bi-annual “Wheel to the Sea” has been sponsored for the past 26 years 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 brother is a Vietnam vet.

The Institute gets assistance for “Wheel to the Sea” from the Kiwanis Clubs of Thousand Oaks, Canoga Park and Northridge. Also participating is the Mountains Recreation Conservation Authority, the Volunteer Mountain Bike Unit, and the California State Parks. Financial donors include: the Kiwanis Club of Thousand Oaks, Ruth and David Henke, The Childs Fund and individual donors. As the saying goes, “It takes a village.”

The event reaches out to individuals in wheelchairs, especially to Iraq, Afghanistan and other military veterans (and their families). Non-wheelchair users with traumatic brain injury, PTSD, blindness, deafness or debilitating illnesses, are also encouraged to join in.

The big day starts at 8 a.m. with a hearty breakfast. Then the group will embark on their naturalist-led hike through Point Mugu State Park. The trail includes rocky terrain and, in times of wet weather, potential mud or stream crossings. But these obstacles have proven only to be opportunities for team-work and trust building.

The event culminates at the Sycamore Cove State Beach where the CHP generously provides officers for the group’s safe crossing of PCH. Using specialized wheelchairs, the hikers frolic in the ocean, or at least get their toes wet, something many haven’t done in years, if ever. Finally, the long, fun-filled day ends at about 6 p.m. with a family-style barbecue.

Having been on this hike a record 40 times, Steven can attest that all who participate benefit from the physical challenge, social interaction and camaraderie. (“And the food’s great, too,” Steven says.)

One can’t help but be inspired by the courage and determination of the disabled hikers. And in this “me, me” society, it’s uplifting to see the generosity of the volunteers.

“Wheel to the Sea” for the fall season is Nov. 5. If you’d like to participate (or make a financial donation) please go to www.WildernessInstitute.com. If you join the hike I have a hunch it’ll be a wonderful memory you won’t soon forget.

Assuming he hasn’t committed hara-kiri over the Lakers’ collapse, Jack can be reached at jnsmdp@aol.com.

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