Friends ‘make a difference’ for Greendale classmate

When an accident left Lucas Van Herk in a wheelchair, his friends got busy learning to help him adjust at school

Travis Peters pushes his friend Lucas Van Herk around the track at Greendale elementary

Travis Peters pushes his friend Lucas Van Herk around the track at Greendale elementary

When the final bell of the day rings at Greendale elementary, Lucas Van Herk heads out to play with his friends. He hunts them down and finds buddy Travis Peters on the rope jungle, and they head out together to do a lap of the playground’s track.

Lucas, 8, lifts his hands off the big wheels on his wheelchair, and puts them briefly in the air. Travis gets behind the chair and starts running. Fast.

They’re just two friends having fun after school. The fact that Lucas is in a wheelchair is irrelevant. He’s a going concern, his mom Elan says, just as active as any boy his age. He has dreams of being an Olympian, and swims with the Spartans twice a week.

He has a hand-cycle, has been quadding, has tried ski runners on his chair, and is thinking of joining track and field, Elan says. It’s clear he has a need for speed. And he’s also a bit of a daredevil, keeping his mom’s stomach in knots at the best of times.

Lucas was injured in a farming accident at home this time last year, leaving him paralyzed. He spent about five months at Sunny Hill Health Centre for Children in Vancouver, learning how to adapt to his new reality. Through the attentive care of the staff there, the entire family was able to not only grasp the concepts of life with a wheelchair, but embrace it.

“We had a lot of long conversations,” Elan says. “You have nothing but time in a hospital.”

Rather than focus on all the things a wheelchair could do to limit the young boy, she underlined that there are only three things he cannot do.

“You can’t walk, run or jump,” Elan told her son. “That’s it.”

He can do anything else under the sun, with a bit of imagination and with the advancement in both technology and accessibility. And that feeling of positivity is echoed at Greendale elementary, where his friends eagerly welcomed him back into the school environment. Several of his closest friends made regular trips to Sunny Hill to visit, but there were things going on at the school to get ready for his return, too.

They got involved with the Rick Hansen Difference Maker program, learning how to help their friend and also gaining an understanding of life in a wheelchair.

At one point, they were given a few wheelchairs to practice with. The students took turns testing out the school from the perspective of being in a chair. They checked doorways, space in rooms, water fountain heights, and even the playground.

“We had to make a few changes,” says Nicole Driscoll, principal at Greendale. And now, a new student in kindergarten who is in a wheelchair is also reaping those benefits of an accessible school.

When it came to welcoming Lucas back into the school, Driscoll says staff was unsure at first how it would go.

“We were nervous, we wanted to make sure we were being respectful, and that there were no hurt feelings,” she says. But it went off without a hitch.

“Nobody missed a beat,” she says. “He was just included.”

The inclusive atmosphere really gathered the attention of the Difference Maker program, and the school was treated to a special guest speaker at the end of last school year. Students who made an exceptional effort in welcoming Lucas back were given Difference Maker awards.

The Difference Maker program is supported by the Boston Pizza Foundation, and an example of how role models can help guide positive development of children, says executive director Cheryl Treliving.

The foundation was formed in 1990, but was fairly quiet about their work until the last few years. They chose to partner with Rick Hansen because of their shared interest in providing role models for youth.

“This is about making an impact,” Treliving says. “If kids have role models and have access to people who can inspire and navigate them through adulthood, that helps them with the things they’re going to face and is preventative for a lot of challenges.”

They fundraise at a restaurant level, including here in Chilliwack, and one of the big pushes right now is their Kids Meal Cards.

Greendale is pushing, too. They are looking at ways to make their playground even more inclusive, and have hopes of purchasing a large, inclusive disk swing similar to the one installed last year at Evans elementary. They also hope to have ground cover installed that is wheelchair-friendly.

And Lucas has a few ideas of his own, Elan notes, and a long list of sports and activities he is eager to try out.

“He’s just a regular kid,” she says.