Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It was campy, but for a great cause

Safeway fundraiser helps kids with disabilities

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Nineteen year old Mitchell Potter is all smiles after showing off his beadwork he made while taking part in kickoff of Safeway's annual fundraising campaign.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Nineteen year old Mitchell Potter is all smiles after showing off his beadwork he made while taking part in kickoff of Safeway's annual fundraising campaign. Photo Store

I think most of us can remember the wide-eyed excitement of going to summer camp back in the day.

Who could forget the thrill of being attacked by mosquitoes the size of recreational vehicles, or having their bed short-sheeted by the bigger kids in the cabin, or having 95 per cent of their pasty-white body covered in a mysterious rash that left even the camp nurse scratching her head?

Of course, there was also the undeniable joy of communing with the great outdoors and making new best friends, heart-tugging facts I was reminded of Tuesday when I joined a group of local media and entertainment personalities for a big charity event at the Canada Safeway store in Osborne Village.

We were asked to engage in some old-fashioned camp-style arts-and-crafts activities -- by which I mean making friendship bracelets and finger-painting -- to kick off the grocery chain's annual fundraising campaign wherein all the donations collected from April 11 to April 25 go to help Manitoba children with disabilities.

To give us a taste of what it would be like to carry out these fun camp activities with a disability, we media types were allowed to sit in wheelchairs, wear glasses that simulated visual impairments and/or wear itchy wool gloves that were barely big enough to fit the Mayor of Munchkin Land.

In a sincere act of friendship, I made a beaded bracelet with CBC News anchor Janet Stewart. Janet impaired her vision by borrowing my eyeglasses, while I in turn borrowed the thick lenses belonging to Paul MacDonald, an adult ambassador with SMD Foundation/Easter Seals Manitoba.

It is difficult, using mere words, to explain how hard it is to slip tiny sparkly beads onto a frayed piece of string when (a) you can barely see, and (b) your hands are sweating inside extra-small wool gloves, but I will give it the old college try: It is really difficult!

But I sensed Janet was deeply moved by our friendship bracelet, which barely squeezed over her wrist. "It was beautiful," she told me. "I was blinded by your glasses. I got a sense of what it was like to be visually impaired."

When I asked if we were now "besties," Janet chortled with delight: "We've ALWAYS been besties! But the bracelet is only big enough for me."

Thankfully, our arts-and-crafts expertise helped launch Safeway's April fundraising drive, which has raised more than $6 million in Western Canada since 2008, including more than $885,000 in this province, with the cash going to the Society for Manitobans with Disabilities/Easter Seals.

(By the way, you get five bonus Air Miles reward miles for a $2 donation. They hope to raise $150,000 in two weeks.)

After we finished finger-painting -- during which local comedian Big Daddy Tazz painted a huge black moustache on his own face -- Bill Muloin, SMD's supervisor of children's leisure and recreation, said the drive funds a host of activities, such as inclusive camping, leisure and rec programs, power wheelchair hockey, sledge hockey and other programs for disabled kids.

"It's huge," Muloin explained. "It's really overwhelming. Without this campaign, I'm not sure how much service we could provide, to be honest with you."

Muloin delighted us media day-campers by describing a unique program dubbed "Flying Squirrels" that literally allows campers in wheelchairs to experience the joy of having wings.

"A child in a wheelchair is hooked up in a safety harness and ropes are connected to the harness," he explained. "Somebody behind the chair pushes and then about eight people on the other end of the ropes pull the child about 60 metres into the air... and the child just goes 'WOOOOOOO!' because of the sheer exhilaration."

Richard Lambert said SMD's sledge hockey program has been a game-changer for his 13-year-old son, Spencer, who has spina bifida and relies on crutches to help him motor around St. Alphonsus School.

"He's got no real muscle strength below the knee, no control of his ankles," Richard told me. "Sledge hockey has made a huge impact in his life. The best part is it makes him equal to everyone else."

For his part, Spencer, one of SMD's youth ambassadors who helped us survive our arts-and-crafts encounter, is a fanatical sledge-hockey fan and helped promote the sport at the Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. "I like the physicalness of it," Spencer chirped. "It's amazing. I'm able to do something at my level."

Asked if he had an important message to share, the youth ambassador suddenly became shy. "I don't really have one," Spencer whispered.

But, when his dad and I put the pressure on, he finally declared: "Bring down barriers, put aside our differences... and support SMD by making a donation when you're at Safeway!"

You heard the ambassador, people. Get ready to shell out toonies... or you're out of the friendship circle!

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 9, 2014 A2

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