As the wheels finally came to a rest at the end of a grueling 48 hours of cycling, the sound of pedals pumping in the Bellerose Composite High School atrium was replaced with cheers.
Some of the excitement was relief from being finished. Bellerose has hosted 16 annual Bike-a-thons, an event that sees teams of students, joined by firefighters, RCMP and community members, ride stationary bikes for two days straight. Part of the excitement was also the amount raised; bringing in over $135,000, the annual tradition has collected well over $2 million.
But the loudest cheer, recalls teacher and WE club leader Sue Leighton, came when they announced the winners of the Dave Young Award. Named for a former Bellerose student who was diagnosed with cancer in Grade 12 and died before he could ride in his final Bike-a-thon, the award is for embodying the spirit of the event.
To understand why this award means so much to the 1,100 students in this Saint Albert, Alberta, school, you need to know a bit more about the culture.
“Our students define themselves as the Bellerose family,” says Leighton. “And being family means looking after community.”
That sense of community is what first drew Leighton to WE more than 10 years ago.
She found inspiration in knowing that her students were part of something larger, that young people across Alberta and throughout Canada are giving back to their communities. Since then, she’s helped her students cook monthly meals at Ronald McDonald House, volunteer at a local women’s shelter and community food bank, lead sock drives for Hope Mission, and donate containers full of sporting equipment to those in need.
But it’s the Bike-a-thon that’s their most ambitious project.
Started over a decade ago with just 100 students, the Bike-a-thon has grown every year, but the goal has always remained the same: inspiring community, raising money and fighting cancer.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time when Canadians are asked to do more than raise awareness—they’re called on to take action. Recent years have seen incredible advancements in prevention, diagnosis and treatment, thanks in no small part to the dedication of fundraisers, like the students at Bellerose. Still, more than 70 Canadians are diagnosed with breast cancer every day, so funds for research and lifesaving treatments are as important as ever.
At Bellerose, each team has to raise $1,000 to secure a bike. They host bake sales and yoga classes, go door-to-door in their neighborhoods in the middle of Alberta winter, lead bottle drives, sell T-shirts and buttons, and canvass outside grocery stores.
This buy-in and sense of ownership over the project are what ensures its success, explains Grade 12 student Maddy Bartlett, who raised over $7,000 herself. That, plus motivation from cancer survivors and family members, keeps the students pedaling long into the night.
Maddy remembers one 12-year-old cancer patient, the sibling of one of the riders, speaking about the endless blood transfusions and drugs she endured in treatment. Her message: she draws strength from their pedaling. Maddy recalls, “watching her talk about her experiences and what she’s going through gave me a drive and willpower to make a difference."
The real work happens before the event in the weeks and months spent fundraising. The ride itself is more of a festival than a race, with dance contests, a DJ and musical performances, Fear Factor-style competitions, karaoke, movies, a hypnotist, all-night food and even a head-shaving event to keep the energy high in the middle of the night.
“We work really hard as a staff to make it fun, because they’ve worked really hard to have this great event,” says Leighton. In fact, it resembles the WE Day spirit, as students bond over their shared actions.
Leighton has taken students to nearly every WE Day Alberta and has used the transformative day to remind her students that young people are agents of change. Judging by the excitement generated by the Dave Young Award, they’ve taken that message to heart.
While everyone involved in the Bike-a-thon contributes to its success, the award is for students who truly symbolize the spirit of the event, going above and beyond, putting in extra hours setting it up and staying up all night to motivate others. “It’s just a little plaque,” says Leighton. “But it brings the house down when we announce it.”
Jesse Mintz is a lifelong learner and believer in the power of stories to educate and inspire. He knows everyone has an interesting story—it’s just a matter of asking the right questions.