Unexpected difference-maker to take part in Rick Hansen 25th Anniversary Relay

It was the biggest stage Audrey de Boer had faced. But after a few voice lessons she sang a heartfelt song to her sister Emily, whose life had just been turned upside down.

Emily had taken strength from a necklace engraved with a simple word—believe—to be in Garry Point Park that night, her first major outing since an operation four months earlier left her paralyzed in hospital.

Tears were shed that night when Audrey, 10, sang “The Climb,” a Miley Cyrus song about staying strong through life’s struggles—and Emily was doing just that.

It was Emily, after all, who organized much of the event from her hospital bed: a fundraiser with music, food and dancing that raised $17,000 for the Rick Hansen Foundation.

It was something she wanted to do for other kids in her situation, after the bright, athletic 12-year-old lost the use of her legs following a surgical attempt to correct a spine curvature in February 2011.

Emily was captain of her soccer team and co-captain of her hockey team. She’s now in a wheelchair after spending a year in hospitals and rehabilitation centres. But she’s not hiding on the sidelines.

Emily and Audrey are both medal-bearers in the Rick Hansen 25th Anniversary Relay. The sisters will stay together as each takes a turn Sunday bearing a silver medal that’s made its way across Canada, carrying the spirit of Hansen, Canada’s Man In Motion.

Hansen inspired Emily early on. He visited in hospital, telling her to be strong—that he would be right by her side. It was then he suggested the young girl be a part of the 12,000-kilometre relay.

Others lifted her spirit. A hockey teammate organized the “believe” necklace campaign. Another set up a trust fund to help with wheelchair and therapy costs.

While Hansen personally invited Emily to be a part of the relay, McDonald’s owner Christine Campbell invited Audrey, who’s made a significant impact to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

Audrey was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age six. So she formed a team for the TELUS Walk to Cure Diabetes and within a few years raised $28,000 for the charity.

But days have been hard; the family is in the midst of moving to a new home and facing a major renovation to make it wheelchair accessible. Nonetheless mom Charmis de Boer—who will be with her girls, along with dad Grant, at the relay Sunday—is extremely proud.

“Emily, instead of crawling into a deep dark hole...she’s decided that she’s going to go out there and do what she can,” said Charmis. “I feel so proud of both of them.”

Next Tuesday, Emily will join the relay again. This time with Hansen for the relay’s final metres from Robson Square to the Terry Fox Memorial in downtown Vancouver.

“It’s kind of like a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said Emily, who called Hansen “super nice” and “generous.”

Emily herself is proving to be an inspiration. A woman—whose depression had sent her spiraling downward—recently approached the family. Seeing Emily leave hospital for that fundraising event in Garry Point Park last June gave her strength—and, she said, saved her life.

Emily, a Grade 6 student, has returned to the pool for para-swimming and on Wednesday spoke to two classes at her school, Lord Byng Elementary. She told students about the relay and what it means to be a difference-maker.

Said Emily: “A lot of my friends know I’m in it. They just don’t know why.”

Rick Hansen 25th Anniversary Relay

•More than 7,000 medal-bearers are helping trace the original Man In Motion Tour across Canada. It winds its way through Richmond Sunday May 20, stopping at a number of community centres and other locations, including Fisherman’s Wharf in Steveston.

•Fraser Walters of the Canadian Tenors will sing “O Canada” to welcome Rick Hansen to the official End of Day Celebration at the Richmond Olympic Oval.

•Free event begins at 3:30 p.m. with outdoor entertainment on the oval’s southeast plaza, including rock/pop music from SideOne and a demonstration by Para Taekwondo, a martial arts program for people with disabilities. Formal ceremonies begin with the arrival of Hansen at 5 p.m.

•Relay concludes in Vancouver May 22, after travelling through more than 600 communities in its nine-month, 12,000-kilometre journey across Canada.

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