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Keeping Newman's dream alive

They'll gather in California, and Connecticut and New York. They include serious cyclists and recreational cyclists - some who can trek 100 miles, others who are happy to pedal their way toward 15 - but they both share a common cause: to raise funds for Paul Newman-inspired Hole in the Wall Camps across this country.

On Sunday, Sept. 12, cyclists from across the country will pedal with a purpose in the first bicycling event for the camps, called The Camp Challenge Ride Series.

And for Mike Smiles, the Noank resident who is head of development for the Hole in the Wall Gang fund, the response has been strong, and growing. He estimates several hundred cyclists will ride in Connecticut's "Quiet Corner," or outside of Los Angeles or just outside of Saratoga, N.Y.

"We're having a very nice following from new riders and old friends, who are all inspired by Paul Newman's vision," he says. Newman, the noted Hollywood actor and philanthropist, created the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford for seriously ill children - those with cancer, or metabolic disorders, or HIV/AIDS. No child at the camp pays to attend, and for some it's the first time they can enjoy an outdoor recreational setting, complete with cabin-style living, with round-the-clock medical care.

Smiles says working for the past seven years for the Hole in the Wall camp has been truly inspiring, and this first national event for the camps has been greatly aided by a generous grant from the Aetna insurance company, which provided $250,000 for the event, ensuring that all funds raised by the cyclists go directly to the camps, not to overhead, or other expenses.

"One hundred percent of the proceeds from this event support the operating needs of providing a free-of-charge camp experience for seriously ill children," says Smiles.

The camp, says Smiles, affords these children a wonderful opportunity to enjoy summer and the outdoor tranquility of a rural place like Ashford, tucked into this state's eastern corner.

"Family lives are turned upside down when a child has a life-threatening disease," says Smiles. "This offers an independent experience with other kids going through the same journey."

The cycling event requires a rather modest $250 fundraising commitment, plus a $25 entry fee. That includes free meals for the riders, beverages and tours of the Ashford camp after the ride. The Sept. 12 event begins at 8 a.m., when the rides start, and there are post-ride festivities from 1 to 4 p.m.

What's also interesting about the Camp Challenge cycling event is that it accommodates riders of all abilities. There are 15- and 30-mile routes and a 62-mile course, depending on the cyclists' ability and energy.

Smiles says that Newman's Hole in the Wall camp in Ashford inspired many other philanthropists over the years to finance similar camps elsewhere in this country. The idea has also gone global. Today, he says, there are 11 associated Hole in the Wall camps - five in this country and six abroad - under the umbrella of the Association of Hole in the Wall Camps.

Those children who come to the summer camp in eastern Connecticut, says Smiles, learn independence and empowerment over their illnesses. "Really, it does do magic," he says of the camp experience.

For more information about the Sept. 12 cycling fundraiser, visit www.teamholeinthewall.org and click on "camp challenge ride."

Says Smiles of the Sept. 12 event, "it helps spread the good news of the camp and allows more people to come into contact with what, in our case, has been an idea that's gone global."

Anthony Cronin is The Day's business editor.

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