Helmets for Heroes brings together art and sport in support of courageous young Canadian heroes
By Chris Dornan
TORONTO–The fire to see the Canadian flag raised above the podium will be burning strong in Canadian Monique Sullivan’s heart when she puts on her specially-designed helmet and hits the start line for the cycling events at the velodrome in Milton during the Pan American Games.
Sullivan is the third of what promises to be a long list of Canadian athletes to take part in Helmets for Heroes – a special project that brings together art and sport that Olympian Brad Spence conceived last year with the goal of raising money for children battling life-threatening diseases while also generating awareness for helmet safety.
The program pairs young artists with Canadian Olympians. Spence introduced Sullivan to Joel Jamieson – a 16 year old artist who was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2008 that resulted in kidney failure. After being on kidney dialysis for four years, Jamieson received a transplant in 2014.
Building on their Alberta roots, the helmet features a flaming maple leaf and the Rocky Mountains along with two key words that will always connect Sullivan to Jamieson: Love and Joy.
“We worked on the design collaboratively. Joel liked the concept of the flaming maple leaf and growing up in Calgary, I have always loved escaping the city to the mountains. They make me feel centred and relaxed – something I want to feel during racing.
“But the words are key to us. I really wanted to remember what I love about riding and why I do it. Sometimes when I’m competing I forget how much I just love to ride my bike. And I know that Joel has also found a lot of joy from riding now that he is able to do sports again,” added the double Pan Am gold medalist and Olympian.
They also added “Je t’aime memere” on the helmet to honour Sullivan’s grandma who was diagnosed with cancer during the design stage. “I am so glad she is still with us and going to be there watching. It will be an emotional time for us.”
Sullivan will bring the artwork into the world of sport when she hits the velodrome at the Pan American Games.
“Sport is very concrete and rational. There is always a clear goal, a clear winner, and clear process to get from one step to the next. Art can be much more subjective and there are no winners and losers,” said Sullivan. “However, both have the power to bring people together. What I really love about Helmets for Heroes is that it gives everyone involved a new way to express themselves, and we get to do it together.”
The program began when Spence met Calgary Osteosarcoma patient Gillian O’Blenes-Kaufman during a community outreach visit to the Alberta Children’s Hospital. Recognizing her incredible artistic talent, Spence asked O’Blenes-Kaufman to design and paint the helmet he wore while competing in the alpine skiing events at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games.
Sadly, O’Blenes-Kaufman lost her battle with cancer in December – the same week Spence launched his Helmets for Heroes program with three-time Olympic luge athlete Sam Edney during a World Cup race in Calgary.
“I learned so much from Gillian; she was the ultimate fighter and never gave up, and that helped me in sport, but more importantly, in my personal life,” said Spence. “I looked at my teammates from different Olympic sports and I realized all of their helmets are blank canvases that could tell powerful stories, and also better connect an athlete with the community.
“Gillian and I discussed Helmets for Heroes, and we came up with the idea to match a child battling illness with a local artist and an athlete to showcase these moving pieces of art.”
On the day of O’Blenes-Kaufman’s funeral, Edney coincidently slid his way into the Canadian sport history books wearing the second helmet made for the program when he became the first Canadian to win a men’s World Cup race in luge. He accomplished the feat while wearing a helmet designed and painted by Richard Flamenco – who has spent the majority of his life with an incurable disease called epidermolysis bullosa – which causes painful blistering of the skin.
“As soon as I put that helmet on I just felt I had all this confidence and strength,” said Edney following his race. “It is hard to explain, but I think the experience showed there is so much more than just the results. It was such an inspirational moment for me to be there with Richard, and to have it all come together was unbelievable.”
Kelsey Fraser, a local artist and graduate of ACAD, was selected to help guide the two young artists through the process of designing and painting the final products.
Sullivan will do up the chinstrap on the third edition of Spence’s powerful initiative onJuly 16. Following the Games, Sullivan’s helmet will be up for auction, with all proceeds going to the nephrology ward at the Alberta Children’s Hospital. Sealed bids can be made by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“With Gillian’s help, I know there are angel investors out there that will continue to breathe life into this program for Canada’s true heroes,” said Spence. “I am really excited to bring these three amazing individuals together in a celebration of sport and art, but more importantly, to provide people with the opportunity to stand up and help us give these courageous kids additional hope.”
To donate to Helmets for Heroes or for more information on the organization, please contactBrad Spence at email@example.com