By Dan Hust
ELDRED September 14, 2004 While more than 700 four-wheelers were off-roading across 52 miles of Sullivan County wilderness Saturday afternoon, 6-year-old Grace Hillriegel was attempting to match her brother Michael step for step on an artificial rock-climbing wall at the Eldred Preserve.
Cheering her on were more than her parents, Brian and Jeannie of Callicoon, and Partymaster employee Gaspar Teri. Gathered with them in fact, having just been introduced were Jackie Comfort and her daughter Melanie Mead of Yulan.
The spunky 2-year-old in Jackies arms her grandson and Melanies son, Aiden Hanley was more focused on the roar of arriving and departing ATVs and didnt seem as impressed with Graces ascent as his older compatriots. Indeed, not even Graces hospital mouth/nose mask caught his eye.
Then again, Grace didnt appear self-conscious about the mask as she put one foot above the other on the rock wall.
Perhaps thats because both Grace and Aiden have seen plenty of those masks she as a leukemia patient at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, he as the recent recipient of a heart transplant at Columbia Presbyterian in New York City.
Both children have been through mind-boggling trials that many thought they would not survive.
Yet there they were on Saturday, running around and watching the busy goings-on all happening for them.
Its kind of shocking, admitted Melanie as she took in the hundreds of trucks and empty ATV trailers surrounding her near the shore of the Preserves Steges Pond. But Im very thankful. Its good help.
That help Saturday came in the form of the Sullivan County ATV Association, which last year raised $19,000 for local needy children through its annual Poker Run.
With at least 200 more ATV riders this year (who, in addition to paying to ride, bought more than 1,000 t-shirts), co-organizer Ed Houman predicted a minimum of $20,000 would soon be coming to the aid of two kids facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills.
Were growing, he explained in between coordinating school buses shuttling participants between the Steges Pond headquarters and the secondary parking area at the Highland Senior Center on Route 55.
He attributed much of that growth to the associations soaring popularity, both with riders looking to have fun and do good, and with local officials and property owners impressed with members commitment to safety and that all-important cleanup following any ride through the woods.
Weve gained the respect of local authorities, he said.
With that respect has come cooperation, not only from landowners who open up their properties to four-wheelers but businesses like the Eldred Preserve (which catered and organized its end of the affair) and the Fosterdale Motor Lodge (which did the same for the other end of the trail).
Much of the effort was donated, including a band (the Northern Lights) and DJ Craig Chase from Viking Audio.
Its a good cause, said Eldred Preserve coordinator Lou Monteleone, adding that these kinds of large events should become more common as the Preserve develops this portion of the old Singer family estate (of the sewing machine fame) along Steges Road in Eldred.
Whats not donated will be paid for by the ATV association, said Houman, and in a few weeks he hopes to be handing checks to the families of Aiden and Grace.
Its not going to go to waste, promised Jeannie Hillriegel.
Indeed, with twice-a-week trips to Westchester from Callicoon for blood plasma injections and chemotherapy, Graces parents are racking up quite the gas and lodging tab, in addition to humongous medical costs.
But the bills and the trip down there arent the worst, said Brian. The stress is the worst.
Yet for both families, there is a measure of hope. Grace hopefully faces only a year or two more of treatment before her leukemia is in full remission, while Aiden is already on a healthy path to recovery, as long as his body does not reject his new heart.
And Saturday was a chance for them for everyone to have some much-needed fun.
It just goes to show that when you do nice things, you get nice things in return, said Melanie.