It’s hard to imagine a teenager more fitting of an award named after Terry Fox than North Vancouver’s Luke Harris.
The prestigious Terry Fox Humanitarian Awards are given to 15-20 students across Canada each year in the form of a $28,000 scholarship to cover university tuition.
The government-funded awards go to those who have “demonstrated the highest ideals and qualities of citizenship and humanitarian service while in pursuit of excellence in academic, amateur sport, fitness, health, and voluntary community service,” according to the award’s official description. Individuals chosen “reflect the ideals of courage, humanitarianism, service and compassion which Terry Fox embodied.”
Harris earned his award in large part because of his work promoting youth para-athletics, volunteering with local programs while also pushing those in power to do more to include athletes with disabilities in athletic competitions.
During his Grade 12 year at St. Thomas Aquinas, Harris started an organization called Run 4 The Health Of It to encourage schools and principals to take action to get more athletes with exceptional learning needs involved with high school sports teams. He wrote letters to every high school in the province to try to drum up support for his campaign.
Harris is also, naturally, a huge fan of Terry Fox.
“I really look up to Terry Fox and I think it’s just amazing what he did,” said Harris. “I know how hard it is to start a movement to get awareness for something.”
The connection goes deeper though. Harris, Like Fox, is a runner, so he knows a bit about the sacrifices the Canadian hero made on his Marathon of Hope to raise money and awareness for cancer research.
“From a running perspective, running a marathon a day is absolutely insane on two legs, let alone one,” Harris said with a laugh.
Harris knows about facing challenges as well. After taking up running in Grade 8 he quickly rose up the ranks, placing fourth at the national age-group championships in just his second year on the circuit. His racing career was derailed, however, by crippling pain that was eventually diagnosed as two large bone tumors on his right leg.
The non-cancerous tumors had to be removed in a delicate surgery that knocked him off the track for months. He came back in his Grade 11 year and has slowly rebuilt his speed, finally topping his pre-surgery personal bests in the 400 m and 800 m this year. He made the finals in both races at the high school provincial championships and will race with the UBC Thunderbirds starting in the fall.
“It’s feels really good,” he said of regaining his running form. “I have another race, club provincials, this coming weekend so I’m hoping to knock off a few more seconds there.”
Harris has also dealt personally with disability. He has dyslexia, and in Grade 3 was placed into a program called The Literacy Centre for students who were off to slow starts academically.
“It helped a lot,” he said. He graduated from STA this year and will study engineering at UBC.
Those experiences of sport, academics and compassionate care helped shape him into the activist athlete he has become. He started volunteering with athletes with disabilities when he was 12 years old, joining his brother as helpers in the Challenger Baseball program.
After his surgery, Harris formed a powerful bond with Ges Bushe, a young runner who has mobility challenges and is on the autism spectrum. The two trained together and Harris, while his injured leg was slowly rounding into racing form, acted as a guide for Bushe for cross-country running races.
Harris’s efforts bore more fruit at this year’s track and field championships where the para-athletics and Special Olympics programs were expanded to include six events for boys and three for girls, upping the number of athletes involved from four last year to 16 this year.
“It was awesome,” Harris said of watching the athletes represent their teams. “They were all really happy, it just felt really great giving them an opportunity they hadn’t had in previous years. They all really enjoyed it and they were all really excited to come out and compete with the rest of the schools.”
Adding to the fun for Harris was watching a teammate, STA Grade 11 student Suraya Pittalwala, win gold in the Girls 100-m dash Special Olympics.
“She was over the moon,” said Harris. “She couldn’t stop talking about how much she loved track and how excited she was for the next season.”
Topping it of was watching Bushe compete in the 100-m and 200-m races and shot put for para-athletes. Bushe has come a long way since they first started running together in the fall of 2015.
“He’s been getting some huge personal bests and huge improvements just through training and working on different techniques,” said Harris. “It’s been a lot of fun, it’s been great watching him improve and I’m really, really proud of him.”
Harris is hoping there will be more success stories like that in the future. With scholarship money coming from the Terry Fox award as well as a Trevor Linden Community Spirit Scholarship he won – one of four given out in B.C. this year – Harris said he’ll have more time for volunteering without worrying about paying the tuition bills.
He’s already teamed up with organizations like Athletics Canada and the Rick Hansen Foundation to spread his message of inclusion, and he doesn’t intend to slow down any time soon.
“I’ve been working with para-athletes my whole life and I’ve also been doing sport my whole life,” he said. “Sport is just such a big part of my life that I feel like everybody should have the opportunity to be part of a school team or club team. If they really want it, anybody should be able to go out and do a sport that they love.”