Ten years ago in Ithaca, when Joan Jacobs Brumburg visited her doctor Ann Costello for her 60th birthday check-up, Dr. Costello asked how she was going to celebrate her milestone birthday. “What is it that you’ve never done, but always wanted to?” she inquired.
Brumburg, a Cornell University professor, gave it some thought.
“Well, I always wanted to swim across Cayuga Lake,” she responded. “I was always a swimmer. I grew up swimming in the Adirondacks.”
Dr. Costello suggested they both do it.
The two didn’t know it then, but their casual conversation gave birth to Women Swimmin’, an enduring fundraiser that’s generated hundreds of thousands of dollars for Hospicare and Palliative Care Services of Tompkins County. As it grew over the next decade, the event inspired and supported similar swims for hospice care across the Finger Lakes. Canandaigua Lake Swim benefits Ontario-Yates Hospice of Finger Lakes Visiting Nurse Service, and Krossin’ Keuka is organized for the Keuka Comfort Care Home and related services in Penn Yan.
Not only do they help to provide funding for services that are offered regardless of the ability to pay, the swims also raise awareness for hospice and the needs it meets. For instance, the Tompkins County agency, in existence since 1983, provides care for people of any age with any terminal diagnosis. Additionally, its palliative care service specializes in relief of pain, symptoms and stress at any point in an illness.
The three agencies all have hospice homes. The organizations in Tompkins and Ontario counties also provide services in hospitals, nursing homes and in the homes of clients. The goal is to help people live every day the best they can, with the best quality of care.
Making waves in three lakes
Brumburg was on the board of directors of Hospicare in 2003, and approached the rest of the board with her plans for the swim. She and Jacobs chose hospice because both their mothers died of cancer. “We wanted the swim to be women only, kind of a girl bonding thing,” she explained. “Half the people laughed out loud, and others offered to cook us breakfast.”
That first year, “Women Swimmin’ for Hospicare” had 127 participants (not including the crews on shore and in canoes and kayaks to support the swimmers), and raised more than $5,000. For the 10th anniversary this year, on August 10, 350 women will be in the water, swimming the 1.2 miles from Poison Ivy Point to the Ithaca Yacht Club. (There would be more swimmers, if it were not for safety issues that limited their numbers.) At least that many men and women will be supporting them on shore and in vessels on the lake.
Participants have to be at least 18 and female for Women Swimmin’, but can be any age and gender for the Canandaigua Lake Swim, scheduled this year for August 11. Dr. Kerry Graff, who works in the program for Ontario-Yates Hospice, started the swim in 1999 in memory of fellow physician and friend Dr. David Reed, who died of cancer. Each year, about 50 swimmers – including Dr. Graff – do the mile across Canandaigua Lake and raise an average of $10,000, said Stephanie Hesler, development officer for Finger Lakes Visiting Nurse Service. Each swimmer must collect a minimum of $100 in pledges.
“The money that’s raised helps people who are uninsured or underinsured,” Hesler said. “The swim itself is a beautiful, spiritual experience. You watch the sun come up over the lake. Most of the people who swim are familiar with the hospice experience. Maybe they’ve lost a loved one. They are swimming for the camaraderie, like one big family coming to pay tribute. Dr. Graff is very dedicated, and remains passionate about it.”
The event begins at Onanda Park in Canandaigua, where pontoon boats ferry the swimmers across the lake. There, they meet up with designated paddlers who escort each swimmer to keep him or her on track, and offer encouragement and assistance if needed.
Krossin’ Keuka will be held on July 27. It is a .67-mile swim off the beach of Keuka College. Male and female swimmers are welcome and, like the other two swims, Krossin’ Keuka participants are escorted by paddlers and a marine patrol. Margaret Long, who participated in it for three years, is this year’s chair.
“We see people of all abilities; some even swim with noodle floaties,” she said, adding that swimmers must be at least middle-school age.
About 200 swimmers raise $50,000 each year to support the two-bed Keuka Comfort Care Home, which provides compassionate care in a peaceful home-like environment for terminally ill residents at no cost. The home also has a bedroom for family members to stay.
“It’s very important to have this option available,” said Long, who lost both her parents to cancer.
Twenty-year-old Isabel Brumburg, a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, will be swimming with her grandmother this year. Even though she’s celebrating her 70th birthday, Joan Jacobs Brumberg will not be the oldest Women Swimmin’ participant. Sally McConnell-Ginet, who swam in the event for the first time five years ago, will be swimming this year on her 75th birthday. In 2012, she was the event’s biggest fundraiser, garnering $12,000 for the agency. For 2013, her goal is $15,000; $200 for each of her 75 years. She will be joined by her daughter, Lisa Ginet, who is traveling to Ithaca from her home in Chicago.
“Hospicare of Ithaca and other hospices have been very important resources for a number of close friends and family in the final stages of their lives,” McConnell-Ginet wrote on the Women Swimmin’ website. “As I swim I think about them. I swim slowly, but luckily have the stamina to make the 1.2 miles. And I have many, many wonderful friends and family members (and even friends of friends) contributing to Hospicare in my name.”
• August 10 on Cayuga Lake at the Ithaca Yacht Club
• To Benefit Hospicare and Palliative Care Services of Tompkins County
• Women swimmers only (registration for this year’s event has closed)
• Registration for boater escorts is open until July 31
Registration for Women Swimmin’ broke all previous records by reaching 350 swimmers – the cutoff – in just 3.5 hours.
Canandaigua Lake Swim
• August 11 on Canandaigua Lake at Onanda Park
• To Benefit Ontario-Yates Hospice of Finger Lakes Visiting Nurse Services
• Swimmers of all ages
Contact Coordinator Kerry Graff:
• July 27 on Keuka Lake at Keuka College
• To Benefit the Keuka Comfort Care Home
• Swimmers ages middle school and up
Contact Committee Chair Margie Long, 315-536-6979
Hospice swims are not races, although some of the participants like to be timed. Swimmers raise money through pledges they collect before they get in the water; there is friendly competition to see who can raise the most money. Each of the swims has extensive corporate sponsorship.
For all three Finger Lakes-area swims, people can form groups or teams, called “pods.” For safety or fun, organizers prefer swimmers go into the water in groups. They are boated out and then swim back. People of all swimming abilities can participate – it took one woman four hours to complete the Cayuga Lake swim one year, said event co-founder Brumburg.
by Louise Hoffman Broach