June 23, 2024
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Where Traditional Therapy Fails, Geerz Often Succeeds

(Courtesy of Geerz) Bracha was in fifth grade in Bais Yaakov when she suffered from an eating disorder that made her look more like a girl of 6 than 10.

Her parents, distraught, did not know how to help their daughter. Therapy wasn’t helping and her health deteriorated rapidly as her body lacked the nourishment needed to thrive. One Friday, Bracha told her parents that she wanted to join the “kids in the orange shirts,” the ones who meet every week on bikes and ride as a group. Her parents grabbed her interest as a lifeline and called the number on the orange shirts.

Rabbi Nachum Wasosky, originally of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania spent years in informal education, particularly drawn to helping kids who struggled to find their place. Ironically, it was his own experience with biking, and that of the men he rode with, that made him realize the life-changing impact mountain biking can have. “If being out in nature, facing, failing and overcoming challenges can help adults who are set in their ways to see things differently, be less anxious, take more responsibility and be happier people, imagine what it can do for developing kids.”

With that in mind, in 2012 Wasosky started Geerz, a therapeutic mountain biking program that takes kids into the hills, giving them professionally crafted lessons on biking, safety, etiquette, mechanics and maintenance.

Wasosky told Bracha’s parents that he would arrange a bike and helmet and include her in a group if she committed to a food program that would give her the energy to ride. Bracha agreed and started Geerz. For the first few months, she walked her bike up every hill. By the end of the year, Bracha looked her age and rode at the head of the group. Five years later, she still rides and is a volunteer assistant with Geerz.

“Before Geerz, every­thing was harder. School, everything. I was a different person… It was totally the best thing for me to do in my life. I’m still improving in everything – friends, school… everything!”

As a counselor she sees the impact it has on girls. “There is a hill we go to. The girls are scared and don’t think they can climb it. But it’s all in your head; if you think you can’t, you won’t. If you believe you can, you will.” Bracha says that by the middle of the year, the shy, hesitant girls cheer and support one another over the hills and through falls. Moreover, she says, “They take these lessons with them to everyday life.”

Geerz has 320 weekly riders, with several groups opening soon and 50 trained instructors in 15 locations around Israel. In Sderot, an entire generation has lived under constant trauma of falling rockets and wailing sirens with 15 seconds to find shelter. Noam is one of those children. His trauma was so deep that despite years of therapy he could not leave the house without an escort – not to play, not to go to school.

After a few months of participating in Geerz, Wasosky received a call from Noam’s mother, hysterically crying. Immediately, Wasosky thought something terrible had happened. However, the mother explained that her tears were happy ones. She had been late coming home to bring Noam to Geerz. When she arrived, she found a note telling her not to worry, that he had left for Geerz on his own. For the first time in over three years, Noam left the house by himself, happy and on his own terms.

Another mother describes the program as “like no other I’ve encountered. For a mom who’s seen a wide array of therapeutic activities recommended for her child, this one stands out. The fabulous curriculum, the well trained counselors, the outside air and rocky mountainside all have introduced an element of balance and wellbeing in David’s life. The metaphors (“stay on your bike even when it’s rocky,” “you have the tools to fix your bike even when you’re on your own,” “make sure you’ve got what you need for the road,” and others) have entered our family lexicon. No matter how stressed the child rides out our front door, it’s a virtual guarantee that a satisfied, calm and proud child returns two hours later.”

But, Geerz isn’t just for struggling kids, it’s for everyone. Here, all kids look the same and have the same uniform – only the parents and instructors know who is struggling. It’s therapy in disguise.

Wasosky explains, “Being out in nature and exercising releases endorphins. It gives these kids a safe outlet, helps with anger management, anxiety, ADHD, confidence and more. Add to that life lessons that build on things they’ve accomplished, which they never thought they could, and you’ve given a kid tools for life.”

In a world where children are plugged in or connected to one device or another, the imprint of getting out and disconnecting is vital for healthy development. With Geerz, for two hours a week they don’t even look at their phones

Doni, now in the IDF says, “I worked at Geerz for six years, as both an assistant instructor and an instructor. Many of the skills I learned have been a tremendous asset to me in my IDF service, helped me in IDF officer training, and have guided me further throughout my service as an officer and a commander.”

Geerz is a nonprofit organization where 80% of the riders are on scholarship. Yet even those who pay the full tuition receive a subsidized rate of the total cost. Donations and partnerships support the majority of the budget, which includes eight youth villages which house youth removed from their homes for their own safety.

One donor describes his belief in Geerz: “I give to Geerz because I love Israel and I believe the best way to help build it is to support a program that ticks all the boxes: mental and physical health, life skills, community building, and appreciation for nature while building its next generation.”

The annual Geerz ride is its largest fundraiser and sees 100 adult riders, mainly from the professional Anglo community who come for a two day ride in Israel and raise their donation to participate.

Sam Michelson, founder and CEO of Five Blocks has joined the Geerz ride for three years in a row. “Participating in the ride enables me to directly understand how Geerz helps kids because I feel the difference in myself. We have fun, raise money for Geerz and model healthy, physical behavior as well as tzedaka for our families and communities.”

This year’s ride will take place March 19-21.

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