News and background stories

“It’s not going to change the world, but if we can help just a little bit, that will be a success for us!” 

On June 25 several Canadian speed skaters will participate in the first annual Branch Out Bike Tour to help build more awareness of diseases associated with the neurological system, like Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s. Among them will be Justine L’Heureux, runner-up at the Junior World Championships in 2008, but for her the Bike Tour will be the pinnacle of an epic bike trip across Canada to draw attention to neurological diseases, starting on May 1 near Montreal, QC and concluding on June 25 in Panorama, BC for the Bike Tour. L’Heureux is determined to complete this journey to help out her good friend and co-founder of the Branch Out Foundation, speed skater Crystal Phillips, who was diagnosed with MS herself a couple of years ago.

By Jolanda Abbes

It’s been a while since Justine L’Heureux was in Canada last; at the end of the Olympic 2009/2010 season she decided to take a year off from speed skating to travel the world, some parts of it on a bike. After her overall silver medal at the Junior World Championships in 2008 and two fairly successful seasons as a senior she decided to take a break from it all to take in a completely different experience: “I wanted to experience new and different things, other than only sport and skating. I really like to travel, so that’s what I wanted to do and I was on the road for more than 10 months, exploring, seeing the world and it has been amazing. I am really happy with the decision I made!” However, she is planning to return to the sport next season: “I don’t have any specific plans yet, but I want to skate again and I want to be back for the next season for sure.”

L'Heureux cycling in Asia

Before she will start thinking about speed skating and training again, however, L’Heureux is planning to participate in what will be her first Bike Tour, organized by Crystal Phillips. Both speed skaters go back a few years, but for some reason L’Heureux was never able to participate in a Bike Tour before: “I always tried to do the Bike Tour, but never had the time. I’ve known Crystal for about 5 years now, through skating. We are really good friends, and last season we were roommates in Calgary, so that brought us even closer. She is an amazing friend, inspiring, caring, and participating in the Bike Tour is the least I can do for a great friendship like this.”

Phillips, diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis a few years ago, has organized several teams for the MS Society of Canada Bike Tours over the past couple of years, but decided to start her own foundation last summer, the Branch Out Foundation, including her own Bike Tour: “It has always been a dream of mine to start my own charity for several reasons. First of all, I love fundraising and have a great support group. In fact, it was my friend Graham Daw who showed 100% commitment to starting this charity with me last summer after participating in the ‘Fernie Highline 100 Bike Tour’ together and wanting to organize our own. Since then, many other friends have jumped on board to help and even become board members, consisting of Tobey Berriault, Ken Fyie and Kelcie Swartout. Also, I want to know and be able to tell the public exactly where every donated penny is going, and I want to support research in natural health which focuses on a holistic approach to preventing and curing diseases associated with the neurological system like MS, Parkinson’s or epilepsy to name a few. And last but not least, I want to continue throwing fun events for people to participate in and look forward to year after year!”

At the start of the 2009 Bike Tour

Main fundraising event of the Branch Out Foundation this year will be the before-mentioned Bike Tour on June 25 in Panorama, BC, which will not only be L’Heureux’s very first Bike Tour, but it will also be the last stop of an epic 4500 km bike trip across Canada, starting on May 1 near Montreal, QC, to help build more awareness of neurological diseases and to raise as much money as possible for research of these conditions. L’Heureux: “When I found out that Crystal was organizing her own Bike Tour this year, I knew I had to be there, so at first I planned to fly or drive to western Canada. But then I thought: ‘Why not go there by bike? It’s a Bike Tour that I’m going to and I could just go by bike!’ So I got home April 20, to get ready and start biking from home (200 km from Montreal) on May 1! We still have to decide on some stuff that we are planning while we’re on the road, and we will be wearing T-shirts to show why we are biking, for which cause, and of course we want to raise money, as well as talk about the Bike Tour, Crystal’s project, the diseases and raise awareness. My best friend back home and my boyfriend are going to join me for the whole trip, but anyone interested in joining will be more than welcome! It’s going to be about 4500 km to Panorama, and we will have 55 days to get there.”

Once L’Heureux has reached Panorama, she will have a fun-filled Bike Tour waiting for her. Phillips: “The Branch Out Bike Tour is a one day tour. Participants have the opportunity to ride either 80 km or 100 km and registration includes 2 nights hotel at the Panorama Mountain Village with access to the hot pools, the ride, a T-shirt and swag bag, breakfast, Tazza lunch and a banquet dinner on Saturday. There will be entertainment, door prizes, a silent auction and even a video contest! We will have riders and volunteers of all ages and abilities and many Olympians, including Brad Spence and Trevor White (skiers), Denny Morrison and Shannon Rempel (speed skaters), and Sam Edney and Jeff Christie (lugers), will be attending.” After the 4500 km she will have covered in Canada to get to Panorama, the last 100 km of the Bike Tour will most likely be a piece of cake for L’Heureux, and all 4600 km’s will be worth it to help out her friend: “I am doing this bike trip because of Crystal, because she is such an inspiration for me and such a great friend. And I want to help her foundation and get people all across the country to know more about the diseases. I know it’s not going to change the world, we are just us on our bikes, but if we can help just a little bit, if we can inform some people a little more, then that will be a success for us!”

L'Heureux and Phillips

For more information on how to donate to L’Heureux’s heroic journey across Canada to help out a friend, make sure to check out http://branchoutfoundation.com/donate.php. Also, personalized fundraising pledge pages of other participants in the Bike Tour can be found at http://www.2mevents.com/event/1st-annual-branch-out-bike-tour/pledges. As is stated on the Branch Out Foundation’s website, money is needed for research of the neurological system, and donating to this Bike Tour is an easy way to help out, as Phillips explains: “Donations will contribute to research of the neurological system in an effort to better understand, diagnose, and treat neurological conditions. Our goals with the research money are threefold: 1) to fund at least one academic research project per year that studies holistic therapies that will allow for greater understanding and public knowledge of the nervous system, and lead to the development of natural therapies for neurological disorders; 2) to expand in the future to funding large-scale studies that test the effectiveness of natural therapies on neurological disorders; and 3) to allocate at least 90% of our public donations to the aforementioned points.”

L’Heureux concludes: “Crystal and the entire organizing committee for the Branch Out Bike Tour are looking for other ways, other solutions to cure neurological diseases. So it is new, and they need support and donations for this great project of research into diseases we still know so little about!”

For more information on the Branch Out Foundation, see: http://branchoutfoundation.com/.

Photo credits:
Photo 2 and 4 submitted by Justin L'Heureux
Photo 1 and 3 submitted by Crystal Phillips