Bruce Johnson’s daughter Alyssa never had the chance to feel the wind in her hair while zooming down the open road—a regret he held onto for years. So Johnson, an avid motorcyclist, introduced her to his favorite pastime in his own way on an extraordinary ride he took with his second daughter, Holly, now 18, in 2018—a six-month, 15,800-mile trek from the northernmost point in Canada to the southern tip of South America. Alyssa, who died in 1998 just 20 days after her birth, didn’t physically accompany them on the journey, of course. Johnson carried her in his heart.
The memory of Alyssa motivated Johnson to take this trip and similar excursions before it. Alyssa was born with her vital organs outside her body, a condition known as omphalocele. Despite the best efforts of the doctors at SickKids Hospital in Toronto, Alyssa suffered cardiac arrest and passed away in Johnson’s arms.
Johnson, a sales associate with RE/MAX of Wasaga Beach in Ontario, still remembers the people who comforted him and his family, including hospital staff and representatives from Children’s Miracle Network, a charity that has long partnered with RE/MAX to support young hospital patients and their families. CMN brought Johnson’s family basic necessities when they were sleeping on the floor of the hospital’s critical care unit. “CMN kept the outside world at bay so we could be with Alyssa until she died,” Johnson says.
‘The High Tide That Lifts All Boats’
Now Johnson and Holly hit the road every few years to tell Alyssa’s story at hundreds of RE/MAX offices across North America, Central America, and South America. (Johnson’s third daughter, 15-year-old Jocelyn, and his wife, Mary, help to plan his travel routes.) These trips are designed to encourage agents and brokers to either become first-time donors to CMN or double their past pledges. Johnson also fundraises for the SickKids Foundation, which supports the international SickKids network of hospitals.
Before traveling to South America, Johnson and Holly took motorcycle excursions from Canada to Costa Rica (13,500 miles) in 2013 and from coast to coast in Canada (8,000 miles) in 2016. With the three trips combined, they’ve traveled more than 37,000 miles by motorcycle and raised more than $600,000 for CMN and SickKids Foundation. Johnson has also routinely ranked in the top 20 agent donors across the RE/MAX franchise since he started at the brokerage in 1997.
Wendy Dempsey, associate director at SickKids Foundation, says Johnson is a leader in raising awareness about the needs of children’s hospitals. “We get random donor checks every time Bruce goes out on the road”—some for as much as $2,000, she adds. “Bruce has an uncanny ability to inspire people. They may walk away from a conversation with him and just go write a check.”
“I keep a list of kids who have touched my heart in my pocket. When the wind and rain are trying to kill us, I look at that and keep going.” —Bruce Johnson
CMN President and CEO John Lauck, who often represents the charity at RE/MAX events, says Johnson is “an inspiration to RE/MAX agents across the world.” Lauck recalls that at RE/MAX conventions in recent years, Johnson’s use of video and social media to promote his cause has been prominently featured. Johnson has recorded legs of his and Holly’s travels for promotional videos for CMN and SickKids, which, he says, has compelled more donors to step forward. “He’s a great motivator,” Lauck adds. “He’s the high tide that lifts all boats.”
Braving the Elements
Such long fundraising tours come with plenty of sacrifices, though. For example, while he’s on the road for months at a time, Johnson leaves his real estate business in the hands of his brokers—his sister and nephew. Johnson says his clients are supportive and understanding. “I’ve actually had clients wait for me to return from fundraising journeys before listing their homes,” he says.
Then there are the punishing climates and dangerous territories he and Holly wade through on their travels. They’ve driven through blizzards that chased them from Canada to Alabama. In Mexico, they were careful to drive closely behind military convoys to stay safe from drug cartels. And in the wet regions of Central America, they often had to pull over and wait out rainstorms that turned dusty roads to mud. They stayed in an Ecuadorian port village for a month while their motorcycle engine was being repaired. During the trip, they relied on strangers for a place to sleep each night, and when none could be found, they would pitch a tent on the side of the road.
Inspiration for the Inspired
How does Johnson persevere through these obstacles? He keeps a list in his pocket of kids who have touched his heart—“and when the wind and rain are trying to kill us, I look at that and keep going,” he says.
The list includes children like Helena Kirk, 13, who was diagnosed with leukemia at 3 years old and benefited from CMN at the time. After undergoing 841 days of chemotherapy, she’s now cancer-free and says she hopes to become a pediatric oncologist at SickKids one day. “As hard as it has been, I would not change anything about my life,” Kirk says. “It has made me into the person I am now.”
Kirk started her own advocacy organization called Helena's Hope and has joined child advocates to press Canadian lawmakers for more medical funding. She met Johnson in 2017 at a CMN event. “Despite the tragedy of his baby daughter dying, Bruce chose to raise funds and awareness to help more kids survive,” Kirk says. “He is so awesome to be around because of how compassionate, understanding, and enthusiastic he is.”
Johnson’s ultimate goal is to convert every RE/MAX agent into a CMN donor. He also anticipates another road trip with Holly in the future. “I’ve put Holly through things that most adults wouldn’t dare do, and she has never once asked to end a trip early to go home,” he says. “I think Alyssa would have been the same way.”