OTTAWA – When Jim and Deb Westlake’s son entered the world in 1986, they didn’t know anything about Para sport. They weren't sure what the future held for their new baby, who was born with a congenital lower limb condition that ultimately required two below-the-knee amputations. It wasn’t until they saw a story in the newspaper about an athlete with a similar disability that they knew he, too, could successfully be involved in sport.
Today, Greg Westlake is a Paralympic and world champion.
The chance to make sure other families are aware of and can access the opportunities in sport for Canadians with a disability is the reason they – on International Day of Persons with Disabilities – are committing $1 million to the Paralympic Foundation of Canada, the largest personal donation ever contributed to the foundation since its inception in 2015.
“Jim and I have the same motto when it comes to donations: if you can, you should,” said Deb. “I think particularly this year, a year that’s changed our lives like no other year ever, if you’re going to and you can, you should because it can make a big impact.”
The significant donation will go towards supporting athletes with a disability at all levels of Para sport – whether their dream is to represent Canada at the Paralympic Games or actively participate in sport at the recreational level. This includes through supporting local programming, the purchase of equipment, providing quality training and competition opportunities, and coaching, among others. The Westlakes will also help ensure that families of Canadians with a disability are supported as their loved ones participate and compete in Para sport.
“The Westlake family is a long valued member of the Paralympic community in Canada, and they have a genuine wish to give more children, families, and individuals the opportunities they have experienced and more,” said Marc-André Fabien, president, Canadian Paralympic Committee. “This generous, record-breaking donation will have a considerable impact on the Paralympic Movement in Canada, helping us to increase awareness about accessible, inclusive sport, and providing more opportunities for people with a disability to discover the benefits of sport. Thank you to Jim and Deb, and their entire family, for committing to make such a difference in the lives of so many.”
Para sport has been a family affair for the Westlakes for many years, with members of the family, including Greg’s two sisters and brother, joining Jim and Deb at each of the last four Paralympic Winter Games. Together, they have witnessed the evolution of the Paralympic Movement firsthand – from the early days when few people were familiar with Para ice hockey, to today when Greg is now recognized as one of Canada’s best ever players in the sport.
Jim has also personally dedicated many years in support of Canadian Para sport through his leadership on the Canadian Paralympic Committee Board of Directors from 2006 to 2017 and as the founding chair of the Paralympic Foundation of Canada, a role in which he continues to serve.
Jim and Deb hope to contribute to positive growth and change for all people with a disability.
“When I look at the disability world more broadly, it’s not about high-performance sport, it’s about accessibility and inclusiveness,” said Jim. “I think that the world has gotten a lot better than it was, but it still has a long way to go. But I do think a big part of what the Paralympics has done for people with a disability goes well beyond the athletes and the Paralympics themselves.”
The Westlakes see how Paralympic sport can change the world for people with a disability by creating more awareness and changing perceptions.
“Your hero can be a kid like Greg. Your hero can be the fastest swimmer you’ve seen with one leg,” said Deb. “I think when your heroes change and the image of your heroes change, your society gets better and more inclusive.”
Greg is indeed now a hero to others. A few years ago, he met a young boy who also wore two lower leg prostheses, and now that boy has dreams of playing Para ice hockey for Canada. Deb is thrilled that, years after she wasn’t sure what future her son with a disability had in sport, her family is now able to help others have similar dreams.
“We all know that people have differences, but everyone deserves a level playing field. I think the Paralympic world offers that. And it will continue to get better and more inclusive, and the playing field will continue to become much more level in the future – if people build on the foundation we have now. That’s why I’m happy to share what I can.”
The Paralympic Foundation of Canada is a registered charitable foundation and the philanthropic arm of the Canadian Paralympic Committee. Founded in 2015, the Foundation believes that every single Canadian should be able to imagine themselves at the start line, regardless of ability.
[Photo: The Westlake family celebrating Canada’s gold medal win at the Torino 2006 Paralympic Winter Games, Greg’s first Paralympic Games. From left: Rachelle Westlake, Nicole Westlake, Deb Westlake, Jim Westlake, Greg Westlake, and Scott Westlake.]