Hamilton Helmet Initiative gets kids (and the mayor) to put a lid on it

Mayor Bob Bratina wears a bike helmet.

In fact, he tells a funny story from back in the days when he was the morning man at a local radio station and rode his bike to work. One time he arrived at the station, parked his trusty two-wheeled steed inside the building under the stairs, took off his helmet and promptly knocked his noggin on the stair treads overhead.

The moral of the story? “Always wear a helmet,” he says.

Even when you think it’s safe to take it off.

The Grade 4 and 5 students at Lake Avenue Elementary School listening to the mayor’s speech laugh on cue. They’re assembled in the gym on this sunny May 16th morning in honour of the launch of the Hamilton Helmet Initiative, a local project with an ambitious goal: a helmet for every child.

The success of the initiative is certainly turning heads. A total of 101 schools from both the public and Catholic school boards have signed up; 4200 low-cost helmets have been purchased and 650 will be given away to children whose families can’t afford to buy one. “I’ve never seen such momentum in the community and I’ve been doing this work for a lot of years,” says public health manager, Sue Connell. “Hamilton is showing leadership and other public health units are taking notice.”

The campaign has a number of  partners, including Hamilton school boards, hospitals, police, public health and businesses—and they’re out in full force this morning to show support and speak from the podium. There’s the mayor, of course. Scott Sincerbox, superintendent of education for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, and Pat Daly, chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board, bring greetings as well. Hamilton East-Stoney Creek MP Wayne Marston and a representative from MPP Paul Miller’s office are in the audience.

Police chief Glenn De Caire shares some Hamilton stats from the stage. In 2011, he says, there were 149 cyclists involved in accidents. Sadly, only 30 were wearing a helmet. In 2012, the accident total had increased to 161—but only 35 of the cyclists had put a lid on it. “It has to be helmets first, every time,” he tells the students. Then he points to the adults sitting at the back of the gym. “You are the leaders and role models. When you wear a helmet, you set a tremendous example for our young people. They are our future.”

Dr. Karen Bailey, assistant professor in the Department of Surgery and the director of the Pediatric Trauma Program at McMaster Children’s Hospital, is the star attraction. She immediately connects with the kids and their hands shoot up in response to her questions—even when it means admitting that they sometimes don’t wear a helmet when riding their bikes, skateboards or scooters. “Did you know that 88 people out of 100 could have avoided getting hurt if they wore their helmet?” she asks. “That a large number of boys and girls that could be protected.”

The Hamilton Helmet Initiative exists, she says, for three reasons: to ensure that every child has a helmet, remembers to put it on and wears it correctly. She teaches the students about the 2-V-1 rule, a quick and easy way to double-check the fit, where the helmet sits no more than two fingers above the eyebrow, the straps form a ‘V’ around the bottom of the ears and no more than one finger fits between the strap and the chin.

After the speeches, the students team up and head outside to learn more about helmet safety and brain injuries through interactive activities, including an egg drop challenge, road safety contest and games that demonstrate the balance, vision and fine motor skill impairments that can result from a brain injury. Volunteers from Findlay Personal Injury Lawyers, Hamilton Health Sciences, the Hamilton Brain Injury Association, Kiwanis Boys and Girls Clubs and New Hope Community Bikes help run the events and engage the kids.

Seven Star Sports, a Hamilton-based manufacturer of sporting equipment supplying the big guys like Walmart, Canadian Tire and Toys R Us, is a key player in the Hamilton Helmet Initiative. “We’re providing an A to Z solution,” says director of marketing, Mahmood Mirza. Seven Star prints up the registration kits for the schools. Processes the orders. Provides helmets at cost. Pays for shipping. And has volunteered its toll-free number and credit card processing system. The program was first offered in New York State, then expanded to Manitoba, B.C. and Ontario. “We consider it part of our corporate social responsibility,” says Mahmood.

Leeann Corbeil, director of marketing and community relations for Findlay Personal Injury Lawyers, sits on the multi-stakeholder coordination committee for the helmet initiative. Findlay has purchased a helmet for every child at a lower city school, but Leeann won’t spill the beans on which one until the giveaway celebration has been firmed up for mid-June. Today, her role is to help organize the volunteers who are running the outdoor brain injury-oriented activities.

And she delivered the cake.

That’s right. A cake. Because, while brain injuries are serious and sometimes fatal, the launch of the Hamilton Helmet Initiative is really a celebration of the power of prevention. And the power of a group of committed organizations to create change.

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