Great Cycle Challenge Rider is Fueled by Inspiration

In Charity, Community, Local

By Cecilia Nasmith/Today’s Northumberland

An innocent talk with his next-door neighbour has resulted in a new project for retired OPP officer Harry Van Hees this August – becoming part of the Great Cycle Challenge Canada.

Harry does love cycling, but the big draw was the chance to support the work of the Sick Kids Foundation in developing treatments and finding a cure for childhood cancer.

This is not the first time Harry has gone the extra mile for kids. During his time with the OPP, he would participate in the Torch Runs in support of the Special Olympics.

He is inspired by the photos of the kids on the Great Cycle Challenge website, pictures and stories of little ones who are probably too young even to realize why they feel so sick.

“One has leukemia, one has a brain tumour, one has lung cancer. It’s really sad. I’m a big guy, but I’m soft-hearted when I see that stuff,” he said recently.

And this time it’s not just the kids he’ll be riding for. He will be taking the challenge in memory of others who were lost too soon, like OPP canine handler Glen Perry, who died in February of throat cancer.

“I worked with him on ERT tracks and other OPP duties – great person, and will be missed,” he said.

“The other person I am riding in memory of is my late cousin Hank Hagen, who died quite a few years ago at barely 20 years of age from cancer.”

Since 2016, the Great Cycle Challenge Canada participants have ridden more than 12-million km. and raised $21-million in support of the work of the Sick Kids Foundation in developing treatments and finding a cure for childhood cancer.

Harry’s neighbour Deana Jilesen has participated for years, but it was something he had never heard of. He investigated and learned that the roots of the Great Cycle Challenge are American.

It was 1979, and 13-year-old Katie Hageboeck of Wayzata, Minnesota, was saving up for a 10-speed bicycle when she was diagnosed with leukemia. She died after a 16-month struggle, and she asked that her savings be donated to a little-known organization, the University of Minnesota Children’s Cancer Research Fund.

In her honour, Katie’s parents organized what they thought would be a one-time fundraiser. It’s still going 40 years later – now known as Dawn of a Dream – and it has raised $200-million for the cause so far.

In 2015, these efforts inspired the Great Cycle Challenge in support of cancer research for kids. Since 2015, it has raised more than $30-million across the US and, a year later, inspired the Canadian spin-off.

It’s easy to see how Katie’s story might have resonated with Harry, but he was also struck by the fact that Dawn of a Dream began in 1981. That was the year he got married and (inspired by the death of Terry Fox) became a runner himself – great training for those Torch Runs. And somewhere along the way, he dusted off his bicycle and began riding as well.

Having read on the website that 1,400 children a year are diagnosed with cancer, he did a quick calculation and realized that works out to four children every day. It didn’t take him long to decide to grab his bike and tackle that challenge.

“It’s something to do on my days off, so I thought, ‘Why don’t I do it and raise money for the kids,’” he said.

Harry has joined Jilesen and become one of more than 60 residents of Cobourg, Port Hope and other local communities looking to support these children by taking their ride during the month of August. They’re part of the Cobourg chapter whose pledges stand at $15,478 and counting. There is also a Brighton chapter with 22 riders (who are raising $3,415 and counting).

The rides can be any length – you set a goal of how many kilometres you plan to go and start collecting pledges. Harry’s goal was 1,000 km., though he knows of a young boy who is committing to maybe 20 or 30 km.

The fundraising is already well along and, typically, much of it is done on-line.

“I have about 80 donations through Facebook,” Harry said.

He thinks the photos of himself in funny hats that his wife Christine posts help get attention and pay off with people throwing money at him.

Harry has approached everyone in his e-mail address book with appeals for the cause, and he’s not shy to ask in person. The results range from his paper boy’s gift of $10 to his old OPP detachment’s $250. And he has contacted other OPP officers from across the country with whom he worked as a member of the OPP emergency response team.

Donations have come from people in the US, people in the UK, several relatives in the Netherlands and people he doesn’t even know.

He even wore his Great Cycle Challenge on a trip to downtown Cobourg for takeout at Taps & Corks, and walked out with another donation.

The support has been so overwhelming that he has doubled his original pledge to ride 1,000 km.

Many hands make light work, he said, and he’s glad to be part of the effort to help them.

“The world is a little bit crazy lately with the pandemic and everything. It’s an upbeat thing to raise money for sick kids.”

If you’re interested in helping, you can visit or

Cecilia Nasmith
Author: Cecilia Nasmith

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