By June Mathews
Giving, it’s often said, is good for the soul. But Make-A-Wish Alabama’s Trailblaze Challenge takes charitable involvement to a whole new level.
Through individual efforts to raise money for granting the wishes of more than 300 children with critical illnesses, Trailblaze Challenge participants benefit in body and soul.
A fitness program and a fundraiser rolled into one, Trailblaze Challenge is an endurance experience involving 14 weeks of graduated training alongside Make-A-Wish staff and seasoned hike leaders. The program culminates in a 26.3-mile hike on the scenic Pinhoti Trail in the Talladega National Forest.
Trailblaze Challenge, said Valerie Gerber, director of development and marketing for Make-A-Wish Alabama, was inspired by a similar event hosted by a sister chapter in North Carolina.
“They did really well with it, so we gave it go, and it was successful here, too,” she said.
Seventy hikers, well more than the original goal of 40 hikers, took part in the 2017 Trailblaze Challenge, the first for Make-A-Wish Alabama. The challenge raised $230,000 for the organization’s mission, and it started to build another layer of committed volunteers.
Thirty of last year’s participant have signed up for 2018.
“For me, the best and most unexpected outcome is that some of the people who hiked in last year’s program are still some of my closest friends,” said Gerber. “A fantastic community of hikers has formed from this.”
Trailblaze Challenge participants vary in age, stages of life and levels of hiking experience. The reasons for their participation, though basically altruistic in nature, differ from person-to-person.
For example, 44-year-old Brooks Gant of Vestavia Hills, a married father of two, identifies with the parents of the wish kids and feels compelled to do what he can to ease the pain.
“I cannot even begin to imagine what these parents are going through,” he said. “Seeing firsthand the difference these wishes are making in the lives of these children and their families, and of course the BIG hike weekend last year … . It truly was an experience I will never forget.”
An avid trail runner and mountain biker, Gant has been hiking and backpacking for more than 10 years and spends as much time as possible outdoors.
Deb St. John, however, had not been active for several years due to health reasons and was intimidated at the mere thought of hiking 26.3 miles in one day.
“But I needed a good challenge, and this was for a good cause,” said the 54-year-old Hoover resident. “So, I attended an informational meeting, and as soon as I met a wish kid and her family and learned their story, I was hooked. How could I not give the time and effort to help these kids and their families?”
The training, said St. John, was one of the hardest things she’s ever done, but she gritted her teeth and plowed through the pain. Nowadays, back and arthritic issues that have plagued her for years are so faint she rarely even thinks of them. And like Gerber, she discovered an unexpected bonus.
“I now have new lifelong hiking friends,” she said.
Among St. John’s new network of hiking friends is Sean Spiegelman of Homewood, a 27-year-old who, since college, has thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail and spent a season in Guatemala guiding on active volcanos, among other adventures.
“To be honest, I didn’t really know much about Make-A-Wish until I saw a billboard last year for the challenge and read up on what the foundation is about,” Spiegelman said.
So even though his original motivation for getting involved in the Trailblaze Challenge may have had more to do with hiking than supporting a cause, Spiegelman now has a much greater appreciation for Make-A-Wish and its mission.
“It’s certainly becoming more personal for me over time, and I want to increase my involvement in the years to come,” he said.
Gant, St. John and Spiegelman are three of the 30 hikers from last year’s inaugural Trailblaze Challenge to sign up for the 2018 challenge.
“Our chapter will grant about 120 wishes in 2018, but we have approximately 300 children currently waiting to receive a wish,” said Gerber. “The Trailblaze Challenge program will help us grant more wishes to Alabama children and get people out on the beautiful trails in our state.”
Informational Trailblaze Challenge meetings are being held throughout January in Birmingham and Huntsville. To get involved, potential participants should RSVP for a meeting at alabamatrailblaze.org.