Oceansiders to scale Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for leukemia research

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“Yeah, we’ve done a lot of crap,” said John Fellin, a 40-year Oceanside resident.

The “crap” he spoke of is more than 30 years of charity and community service Fellin has done with his longtime friend and fellow Oceansider Lee Hymowitz.

They estimate that all told, they have raised around $250,000 for brain cancer research, Habitat for Humanity, interfaith groups, youth ministries and more.

“Is there anything we haven’t done?” Hymowitz asked.

Now, the two are climbing mountains — three, in fact — including Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, to raise money for leukemia research through the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Climb 2 Cure initiative.

Hymowitz, 67, who has spent a lifetime climbing mountains and exploring nature trails, estimated that he had hiked around 100 miles with Fellin, 61, as he prepared him for the treks. “He’s been training my ass,” Fellin said. “And I make him feel good.”

“Oh, yeah, he makes me feel good,” Hymowitz shot back. “Me sitting on a rock, waiting for him to catch up.” Hymowitz, the vice president of a recycling company, and Fellin, who has a catering business, have already scaled Mount Washington, in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, but Fellin admitted he hikes a bit more slowly than his friend.

That’s not to say he hasn’t kept in shape. A cancer survivor himself, Fellin has been a cyclist for about 12 years, after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer and realizing the importance of staying healthy. He said he has ridden about 1,500 miles since April on his white Fuji road bike in preparation for his climbs.

The two reversed roles when they took part in a 75-mile bike-boat-bike biathlon on the North Shore. Hymowitz, unfamiliar with bike gears, was winded before he reached the top of the first hill. After letting him suffer for a while, Fellin eventually showed him how they worked, and Hymowitz managed to complete the race. “I was a little slow,” he said.

“Yes, a bit slow,” Fellin agreed.

The two met around 30 years ago, in an interfaith group. Hymowitz was an Oceanside Jewish Center congregant and Fellin, a St. Anthony’s Church parishioner, and they shared a devotion to giving back to the community.

“We’re really working for the same God,” Hymowitz said. “All religion is about doing good works.”

“We should probably join Volunteers Anonymous,” he joked.

Their latest effort, however, is more personal. “I know firsthand the need to find a cure,” Fellin said. In 2015, his wife of 40 years, Cyndi, was diagnosed with leukemia.

When he got the frightening call from her — while organizing a brain tumor awareness walkathon at Jones Beach — Hymowitz, who was with him, immediately knew something was wrong. “He looked into my eyes and he knew right away that something major was going on in my life,” Fellin recalled. “He was right there with me.

“We’ve all dealt with it,” he continued, his voice cracking as he shared a tearful glance with Cyndi. After six months of treatment, she is now in remission, and John said her prognosis is good.

Fellin and Hymowitz set their goal at $39,744, the same number of feet they plan to climb this fall on Mount Washington; Pikes Peak, in Colorado; and, to draw additional attention, Kilimanjaro (although, because of a scheduling conflict, Hymowitz will be unable to finish the climb). All the money they raise will go to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, a not-for-profit that raises millions of dollars for leukemia research each year.

“It’s not about the money — it’s about finding a cure,” Fellin said, but the pair have nonetheless found a handful of sponsors for their effort, including Bill Kallinikos, of Towers Funeral Home; Jeff Rosenthal, of Home Appliances; the Oceanside Knights of Columbus; and the Ng family, of the Fortune Group. So far, the two have raised more than $6,500.

Making clear the depth of their friendship, Hymowitz and Fellin constantly exchange insults, from old-age jokes to crude toilet humor. “If we rag on each other, it’s because we’ve been together for a very long time,” Hymowitz said, adding, “We’re at that stage in life where we don’t care.”

Asked why they dedicate so much time to charity, both men said they have been fortunate. “We grew up in modest backgrounds,” Hymowitz said. “We’ve been lucky in life.”

Completing his friend’s thought, Fellin added, “We just feel it’s the right thing to do.” 

If you would like to donate, visit Hymowitz and Fellin’s fundraising page at http://pages.teamintraining.org/li/mtklmjr17/JFellin