May 18, 2011, Written by Maura Casey
Editor, Jen Benepe
In 2002, Mystic businessman Fred Brooke wanted to help the family of Angel Uihlein, an 11-year-old girl with leukemia. The best way, he decided, would be to collect pledges for a swim across Long Island Sound.
And it worked; after swimming six hours a day for eight days, he raised $35,000 to help the family.
That gueling physical feat helped Angel get a life-saving bone transplant and she’s now a healthy 20-year-old studying to be a nurse. And it was a transformative experience for Brooke.
The simple idea, to transform the lives of young children aged 7 to 15 suffering from debilitating conditions, also helped actor Paul Newman start the Hole in the Wall Gang camp in 1988, a place where they could relax, have fun, live their lives like children really should, and at no cost to the parents.
Film actor Newman who appeared in major box office successes films like “Cool Hand Luke,” and “The Sting” died in 2008, but he said he wanted children who were suffering to have the opportunity to “hike, fish, and raise a little hell.”
Newman was also a very successful humanitarian, and created food company Newman’s Own, which donated all of its post-tax profits to charity, which exceeded $300 million from 1982 to August 2010 according to the company’s website.
One day Brooke attended a fundraising event for the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp and realized he could take his small, one-person challenge, and replicate it on a bigger scale.
His effort has now been translated into one of Connecticut’s iconic outdoor events: the AngelRide, a demanding two-day, 135-mile ride over rolling Connecticut countryside.
“The first day is an eye-opener,” said Mickey Gilliland, manager of Rose City Cycle in Bozrah, CT, and a veteran of two rides who says the hills can be daunting. “I ride a lot, and I was tired,” he said.
And in exchange for all the fun suffering, the organization asks cyclists to raise money to help bring a virtual Hole in the Wall Gang Camp to hospitalized kids who can’t make it to the camp itself. (See a little video about the outreach program here.)
This year’s eighth annual ride which will take place May 28-29, starting in Norfolk in Connecticut’s Northwest Corner and ending in Mystic along the state’s shoreline.
The physical effort of the ride underscores the cause, bringing a fun camp experience to kids who are suffering. “The camp gives the kids whatever they need that medicine can’t give,” said Brooke. This is what inspired him when he met Angel Uihlein.
“She couldn’t use half of her body. She had a cane. And she got up and said, ‘When I was 7 years old, I was given about six months to live. But then I attended camp and I decided after a week there, I could do anything I wanted to.’ She’s now a senior at Harvard,” Brooke said.
The route brings riders the easiest and safest way from northwest Connecticut, not far from the Berkshires of Massachusetts, to Mystic, CT according to the organizers. Two-day riders must raise a minimum of $1,000; those who ride for only one day are responsible to raise $500. (Currently the two-day program is sold out at 235 riders, but cyclists can opt to do 50 miles the second day.)
The first 225 riders of the two-day journey make up the only outside group allowed to stay overnight at the original Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford, Conn., which is now one of 11 Hole in the Wall camps around the world, including locations in Florida, California, New York and North Carolina.
Among the riders are many family members of children staying in the camps, or others affiliated with the program that want to show their support.
Set up to look like a town in the great Old West of America’s pioneering days, Newman wanted the spot to be a summer haven for children struggling with diseases ranging from sickle cell anemia to cancer.
“We help to restore joy and laughter in a time often laden with fear, stress, and uncertainty,” says the organization’s website.
Some children are too sick to make it to camp, even though they have a full staff of doctors, nurses and a 24-hour medical clinic.
Others become ill during times of year when the nearest camps are closed. That’s where the outreach program kicks in and the organization sends its best counselors to visit thousands of kids who are staying in hospitals.
The challenging ride supports the outreach program that brings happiness and joy to children, said Brooke. Last year the event raised nearly $500,000 in funding.
The first day the route is 85 miles, from Norfolk to the Ashford camp, with rest stops, food and drink every 20 miles. Vans carrying luggage and gear pass riders every 20 minutes to let them know they are never far from support.
The exertion is worth it, said Gilliland: “They take such good care of us, and when you pull into the rest stops you get such a welcome you feel like you are winning the Tour de France.”
The evening of the first day riders can stay at the Ashford camp, complete with massages to soothe aches and pains, entertainment, and plenty to eat: “The food is so good it’s the only bike ride you might get fat on,” said another cyclist Fairfield, CT resident, Martha Smiles.
Those who don’t want to bike the entire two days can participate in one of the smaller legs the second day. Adults can join the pack at the camp Sunday morning to enjoy breakfast before heading out for the final 50-mile ride to Mystic. Young adults 11-15 can join adult companions at the 25-mile rest stop. Kids 7-11-years-old can pick up the ride for the last six miles. Each leg has minimal fundraising requirements.
The finish line features a picnic for 1,500 people, entertainment, and activities for kids. The race is supported by 350 volunteers – about one volunteer per participant, said the organizers. More than 20 motorcyclists will escort the ride, traveling to intersections to hold traffic for safety, and helping riders in need along the way.
Wrote Newman before he died: “I’ve been accused of compassion, of altruism, of devotion to Christian, Hebrew, and Muslim ethic, but however desperate I am to claim ownership of a high ideal, I cannot. I wanted, I think, to acknowledge Luck; the chance of it, the benevolence of it in my life, and the brutality of it in the lives of others, made especially savage for children because they may not be allowed the good fortune of a lifetime to correct it.”