Fortney: Local massage therapist cycles cross-country to fulfil a child’s wish

She’s spent the past eight days climbing some of the highest hills through the Rockies, just a thin layer of sock protecting her feet from the hard bike pedals.

Calgary’s Shannon Birkmann will be passing through Calgary on her cross-Canada bike ride on Aug. 9, 2018, in support of Children’s Wish Foundation, Alberta & NWT Chapter. Shannon is riding across the country to raise funds for the wish of a Calgary boy named Cashton who is living with Polymicrogyria and Spastic Quadreplegia. Cashton’s wish is inspired by his love for Sesame Street and swimming – he’ll be travelling to Jamaica to meet Elmo at Sesame Street Beaches, thanks also in part to WestJet.

Please join Children’s Wish, as Shannon meets with Cashton and his family in Calgary and receives a police escort along Highway 1 through the city. Calgary Herald. Published on Youtube Aug 9, 2018

Valerie Fortney, Calgary Herald August 10, 2018

Judging by her wide smile alone, though, you’d never guess that Shannon Birkmann has just completed the first, and possibly the most challenging, leg of what she hopes will be a successful 6,600-kilometre cycling journey across Canada.

“Back in April, I didn’t even own a bike,” says the self-effacing 39-year-old with a hearty laugh. “I was never much of a cyclist.”

That all changed when, earlier this year, the native of Pincher Creek was looking for a physical challenge she could pair with a great cause. She’s riding to support the wishes of a Calgary boy named Cashton Catunto, so he and his parents can later this year visit a resort in Jamaica dedicated to all things Elmo from Sesame Street, Cashton’s hero.

“When I have my darkest moments, I have that motivation,” says Birkmann of her goal to help out the four-year-old boy who was born with a condition that severely limits his movements. “This cause is so much bigger than me.”

When she rolls up Thursday morning to a parking lot on the city’s westernmost edge, Birkmann is greeted by a gathering that includes Cashton, his parents, Alyssa Gould and Mike Catunto, along with folks from the Children’s Wish Foundation’s Alberta and Northwest Territories chapter and officers from the Calgary Police Service who will escort her through town.

When asked why she chose a bike ride, Birkmann answers with a laugh, “Because walking would take so much longer.” Darren Makowichuk, Postmedia

For Gould and Catunto, the wish Birkmann is helping to make come true is so much more than just a holiday. “This will bring him such joy,” says his mom as her little guy, belted into his tiny wheelchair, looks on. “He is a smart kid, he understands a lot and there’s no one he loves more than Elmo.”

In February of 2014, the couple had no idea of the challenges that awaited them and their newborn son. When Cashton was a little over six months old, though, his mom knew something was wrong. “He wasn’t meeting his milestones, he wasn’t rolling over, he wasn’t trying to sit up,” she says.

It would take another six months of visiting doctors and specialists for his parents to hear the eventual diagnosis: Cashton had Polymicrogyria, a malformation of the brain, along with Spastic Quadreplegia.

Gould and Catunto, who were living in Red Deer at the time, moved to Calgary to be closer to the Alberta Children’s Hospital, where their son goes regularly for therapy. “The services there for special-needs children are so amazing,” says Gould.

What is also amazing, adds Catunto, is that Birkmann is taking on her cross-country challenge in aid of a little boy she only met just before beginning her ride. “She’s helping us, but she’s also getting the word out on Children’s Wish Foundation,” he says. “That means helping more kids.”

When I ask Birkmann why she chose a bike ride, she answers with a laugh: “Because walking would take so much longer.”

She has first-hand knowledge of the difference. Last year around this same time, she walked across Alberta in support of a friend who has multiple sclerosis, a feat that took her just over a week. Not bad for a gal who had to give up shoes in order to fix her scoliosis. “Now, I compete in bikini fitness and body building,” says Birkmann, who works as a massage therapist in Kananaskis Country.

The ride, says April Stallings, will go a long way to helping get the word out on all the good things Children’s Wish Foundation does for kids and their families.

“So many of our kids are immune suppressed or in hospital,” says Stallings, the development manager for the organization’s Alberta and NWT chapter.

“When you hear about a child being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, at first there is despair and a sense of helplessness,” she adds. “A wish gives a community something to rally around, it turns despair into hope, fear into joy.”

For her part, Birkmann plans a visit to all the Children’s Wish chapters across the country over what is predicted to take another 37 days, when she isn’t riding or being treated like royalty by people along the way.

“Strangers are opening their homes to me, making me dinner, taking care of me,” she says with a smile. “This is a magical journey for me, so to know I can help someone like Cashton take his trip of a lifetime, just makes it even more worthwhile.”

Source Calgary Herald

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