Hardly any of the participants in the Ottawa Catholic School Board’s Bear Hug III world record attempt last week would have known her, but the origins of the cancer fundraiser stem from former St. Matthew student Erin Gannon.
Bear Hug III
She was the inspiration behind the inaugural Bear Hug in 2004, when St. Matthew first established a world record that was later bested by a group in Juárez, Mexico.
St. Matt’s came together to raise over $100,000 for cancer research in support of Erin, who wound up succumbing to cancer at age 18 just weeks after the springtime event.
“She was the glue in my family and my role model,” says Erin’s brother, Sean, now a senior at St. Matthew himself. “She was always there for me. My earliest memories are that she’d carry me around as a little kid and would always be the one backing me up and helping me out.”
This year’s event marked the third Bear Hug for Sean, who was in Grade 6 at Chapel Hill Catholic School during the first one and remembers his two other older siblings helping to raise money for Bear Hug II in 2008.
“There’s always going to be a special memory there any time an event like that goes on,” Sean adds. “It’s a great event since you’re helping out other people who might being going through the same things you’ve been touched with in your life.”
Over 1,000 people attended the funeral for Erin, who enjoyed soccer and ballet and was an honour roll student before her two-and-a-half-year battle with cancer ended on April 26, 2004 at age 18.
“It makes me feel good to see that people are still caring,” Sean notes. “She was the influence in the very beginning, and to know that she still has an influence today six years later, means a lot to me, and my family too.”
Bear Hug III
Over 16,000 students from schools across the city stretched along both sides of the Rideau Canal around the Somerset St. pedestrian bridge for the May 7 event, which was criticized for eating into the funds raised to cover administration expenses – most notably the cost of bussing all the students to the canal, which wasn’t completely covered by sponsors.
Video and photographic evidence needs to be reviewed by Guinness World Records before the new title is officially awarded, although organizers went to great lengths to ensure there were no breaks in the hug, which occurred during Bear Hug II.
Lester B. Pearson, the other participating school from the east end, brought roughly 1,200 students and staff to the event – a couple hundred less than St. Matthew.
“It’s huge at all the schools,” notes St. Matt’s teacher/organizer Pat McNulty. “What the students are really trying to say through this is that we are one of the most supportive communities there is when someone gets cancer.”
Total fundraising numbers were still being calculated as of press time, although St. Matthew was on the cusp of breaking the $50,000 mark on Monday, May 10, which would earn students a whole “dress-down” week where they wouldn’t have to wear their uniforms.
To view a slideshow of photos from Bear Hug III, click here.