Wheelchair-Bound Superheroes Descend Tall Buildings For Easter Seals

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Two summers ago, Michelle Amerie took a deep breath and began rappelling down all 32 storeys of the Rio Can building in downtown Toronto to benefit Easter Seals. The kicker: She did it in a wheelchair, albeit one decorated with a Batman logo. She rappelled again a few days ago.

“I’m a little bit of a thrill-seeker,” admits Amerie, 47, whose descent that first time she estimates took three-to-four minutes to lower herself, wheelchair and all. “I was really excited and inspired by what I was actually going to challenge myself with. It was incredible,” she tells Samaritanmag.

She was hovering several hundred metres above Yonge Street that September as part of the annual Drop Zone event, a national Easter Seals fundraiser that began in Halifax but as since spread to numerous cities throughout the country.

On different days and in different locations, both able-bodied and disabled men and women who have raised a minimum of $1500 for Easter Seals earn the right to become what Easter Seals calls “a superhero:” don gloves and a helmet, get strapped into a harness and lower themselves via rope — designed to hold 4500 kg — down the side of a city skyscraper.

Easter Seals, which formed in 1922, has a mandate of creating a better life for children and youth with physical disabilities. The organization offers financial assistance to families of kids with disabilities for the purchase of costly mobile equipment, such as wheelchairs, walkers, porch lifts and ramps, communication devices, toileting aids and bathing equipment.

For Amerie, confined to a wheelchair since the age of 16 after multiple sclerosis robbed her of the use of her legs, participating in Drop Zone was an opportunity to raise $3000 to help send physically challenged kids to summer camp.

“It’s pretty important to note that something so simple gives a kid an opportunity to go to camp and just be a kid, experience what everyone else does, one that will nurture qualities and empower them as they grow,” she explains. “To raise awareness of ability over disability was so exciting for me, because I deal with having to challenge people. People who are able-bodied need to look at things outside the box.

“The whole point is, if I use the wheelchair, then I’m going to rappel that way. And the fact that we were at one of the tallest buildings that they’ve ever done, it was even more of a thrill being there.”

She’s not the only one who pitched in.

Stephen Johnson also joined in the fun for the first time in 2012. As president and CEO of Canadian Real Estate Investment Trust (CREIT) and Drop Zone’s founding and prime sponsor, it was his now-retired vice-president, John Morehouse, who came up with the initiative in 2004.

“We raised $70,000 at the first event and decided to make it national,” Johnson tells Samaritanmag.

Johnson says Drop Zone has collectively raised over $10 million for Easter Seals and helping Canadians with disabilities. This year’s edition was — and is — being held in 16 locations across Canada, commencing with St. John’s, Newfoundland on July 27 and scheduled to conclude with a Sept. 26 rappel in Montréal. Today (Sept. 23), there are rappels in Ottawa and Halifax. The website does not list the specific skyscrapper locales.

Most of the buildings are CREIT-owned properties, with the firm donating the rights to Easter Seals to hold the event in cities where CREIT doesn’t hold property.

Toronto held their Drop Zone rappel at CREIT’s 17th-storey Bloor Street office on Sept. 19 with both Johnson and Amerie returning as two of the occasion’s 100 fundraisers — Johnson raising $13,200 and Amerie surpassing the $2000 mark  — and with the overall aim of raising a minimum of $150,000.

Johnson, who admits to a fear of heights, says the logistics for the proceedings are minimal.

“The big logistical issues are safety — not only for rappelers, but people on the ground and the volunteers — training and insurance,” he notes. “Those are the big ones.”

In Toronto, potential “superheroes” undergo a training session at the Rock Oasis, an indoor climbing gym. There, you get fitted for your harness, and learn the numerous ways of descending by rappel.

Then on the actual Drop Zone day, two crews are on site to check and double-check the equipment for safety measures, and to provide “a five-minute refresher,” according to Johnson.

Two rope lines are flung over the side from the roof of the building, and the partakers are then handed a helmet and gloves prior to their descent.

But even with all the precautions, Johnson says you still have to get psyched up to step off the building.

“It’s very hard going over the roof,” admits Johnson. “Psychologically, you just don’t want to do that. That’s the biggest hurdle. But it’s very rewarding, considering the cause.”

For Amerie, an artist who has donated some of her artwork to Easter Seals, there was the empowerment that comes with defying gravity and perception.

“It was a very calm feeling being up there and being free, especially in a place where not too many people go,” Amerie says. “And just seeing what was in front of me was a very cool feeling. To be hanging over the edge of a building was pretty cool.”

So far, Easter Seals reports that almost 6000 people have rappelled down the sides of Canadian buildings in support of the charity. To participate in Drop Zone 2014, go to thedropzone.ca.

Aside from raising the $1500 minimum to participate, you must be the age of majority in your province, and if you weigh more than 275 lbs, you need to notify a Drop Zone coordinator.

Disabled individuals who would like to partake, but need assistance will be accompanied on their rappel by a trained expert.

Amerie says she remembers drawing the attention of passersby who were concerned for her safety.

“I’d stop along the way and I’d be waving to people because I’d see them yelling,” says Amerie, who, despite her affliction, has both skydived and scuba-dived. “I wanted to take it all in.”

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Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.