For its 20th annual iteration, Women Swimmin’ for Hospicare will take to the waters of Cayuga Lake on Saturday, Aug. 12. The fundraising event raises money for Hospicare & Palliative Care Services, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting those with terminal illnesses and families coping with grief in Tompkins and Cortland counties.
Each year, around 325 participants and 120 volunteers congregate at Cayuga Lake for a 1.2-mile swim. This year, the all-female group of swimmers will disembark from Bolton Point at the lake’s east shore, completing the swim at the Ithaca Yacht Club.
Roughly 20 percent of Hospicare’s funding comes from fundraising, half of which is derived from the Women Swimmin’ event. In 2022, Women Swimmin’ raised a total of $607,000, surpassing that year’s fundraising goal by roughly $150,000. This year, the organization hopes to raise $500,000 and is currently over halfway there, at $365,000.
The money raised from Women Swimmin’ and other Hospicare fundraisers will go towards maintaining Hospicare’s residences and making its spaces more accessible. Although hospice care is expensive, the non-profit has a policy of accepting anyone in need of their services, regardless of financial status — an initiative made possible by fundraising, according to Emily Hopkins, director of development and community relations at Hospicare.
“Our director has a policy of not turning people away for [financial reasons],” Hopkins said. “Hospicare is a really important part of our local healthcare system… because we all die, and we all grow old, and most people, when asked, say that they would like to die at home, not in a hospital bed… [Hospice care] is an important service and we wouldn’t be able to be like we are without the over $1 million a year that we get from donors.”
Women Swimmin’ organizers and founders are adamant that the event is not a race. Instead, it is an opportunity for those impacted by hospice care to express their support. Joe Sammons, the executive director of Hospicare, has seen the community-building event’s impact firsthand. For many Women Swimmin’ participants, the swim is more than just a fundraiser.
“I had made a joke one year where a woman who was getting out of the water was really exhausted… [and said], ‘Well, you know, next year you could just write us a check. You don’t have to swim 1.2 miles across the lake,’” Sammons said. “[She replied], ‘I don’t do it for that… I’ll write you a check anyway.’”
Hospicare’s profound impact on families transforms the swim into something greater for its participants. Many of them, like Kaycee Nedrow, have personal connections to hospice care. Nedrow’s late family members, such as her grandmother, benefited from hospice care, which motivated her to take the plunge into Cayuga Lake six different times.
“My first year I didn’t really understand exactly what I was doing and raising the money for, but then as soon as you finish the swim, it’s so clear what the money does, and it’s just so rewarding,” Nedrow said.
Kelly Zayac Greene has faced the difficult experience of losing her parents to cancer, a struggle which has been alleviated with the aid of hospice workers. Despite not being a swimmer, she swims for Hospicare due to a love of what she refers to as “super nurses.”
“I think in part, it is the ability to tell people the great experience that I had, even for one of the most difficult, saddest moments of my life,” Greene said. “I do it for… [the] super nurses out there that show up and comfort [you], and make you laugh, and just become a part of your family for a short moment of time. [It’s] super empowering for me.”
For those who are ineligible of being a swimmin’ woman — either because they are not strong enough swimmers or not women — Hospicare offers the ‘Go the Distance’ option, which allows anyone to support Hospicare’s efforts when they set an activity or service goal to achieve before the swim. Beginning during the COVID-19 pandemic, Go the Distance has stuck around due to its ability to encourage community participation and increase fundraising for Hospicare.
Similarly to the titular Women Swimmin’ event, Go the Distance also provides its participants with a sense of fulfillment, allowing them to nurture habits that have otherwise evaded them. Laurie Damiani, a long-time fundraiser, has elected to walk 100 miles by the day of Women Swimmin’. Hopkins decided to write.
“I’m trying to write a story and publish it every day between now and Aug. 12. So far I’ve written 20 stories in 32 days,” Hopkins said. “Like most writers, [I] have the same problem of ‘what are my standards going to be? when is [a story] done?’ Having [writing] set as a daily goal has forced me [to write].”
In 2021, the swim’s first year back after going virtual during the pandemic, new nurses of Hospicare experienced a heartfelt introduction to the fundraiser, which Sammons believes illustrates its gravity. This year’s event promises more of the same.
“There [the nurses] were, sitting on the side of the lake on a beautiful summer morning, and [there were] 300 women swimming towards them with hundreds of kayakers and paddlers and the band playing,” Sammons said. “They didn’t feel alone on that day and they felt that there was more than just a paycheck involved with working here. And that, to me, is what makes Women Swimmin’ so special.”
Christopher Walker is a reporter from the Cornell Daily Sun working on The Sun’s summer fellowship at The Ithaca Times. A version of this story was originally published in the Ithaca Times.