By Daria Maystruk
Not many people can say they’ve rappelled down a 17-storey building. Even fewer people can say they did it with their dog attached to them.
Westboro’s Elisa Ferrarin Burgess, who works as a senior administrative officer at the University of Ottawa, is planning to accomplish the feat for her second time on Oct. 4 with her dog PaCe.
The trek down the building is in support of the Easter Seals Foundation, an organization that encourages “people living with disabilities to live their lives actively, to push boundaries and overcome barriers in order to realize their dreams,” according to their website.
The Drop Zone fundraiser is open to anyone willing to challenge themselves after they raise a minimum of $1,500. Participants also receive safety training before going down and are assisted by an experienced technical crew.
The event raised more than $50,000 in 2022, according to an email from Lauren Squizzato, Easter Seals Ontario community engagement manager. This year’s event will take place at 175 Bloor St. E. in Toronto, and Squizzato said they are hoping to raise more than $80,000.
Burgess already had 10 years of experience in search and rescue volunteering when she first reached out to organizers about the idea to participate with her dog in 2022.
Burgess said she was interested in the idea for several reasons. She said it was something she had never done before and she wanted to conquer her fears, but she also recognized the challenges people with disabilities face from watching one of her close friends navigate the world in a wheelchair.
“I’m very fortunate to be able to have the ability to not need specific equipment. I don’t know what it’s like to not be able to go to summer camp or not be able to get out of my house because I don’t have a ramp,” she said. “Knowing that this money here helps send a kid to camp where it’s fully accessible for them or it helps provide them with … something that we take for granted … that really captured my heartstrings.”
PaCe, pronounced like the Italian word for peace, is Burgess’s second search and rescue dog. He went through extensive training to be considered “bomb-proof,” she said.
Although PaCe had only rappelled five storeys at a time before, she said they were given a “special circumstance because of the training he’s done” to be approved for the drop.
“I started out in Alberta with a team that focuses on natural disasters, so with my first dog, we had to ensure [they] were very agile in all circumstances — whether it be rappelling down a cliff, being dropped down into a building via helicopter, climbing a ladder in or out and things like that,” she said. “We’ve been through the same kind of training here in Ottawa.”
Outside of the official training implemented with the fundraiser, one of the things they did to prepare was getting PaCe used to the specific type of harness used for rappelling, she said.
“It’s just a matter of putting them in a harness and just lifting them off the floor, and then once you’re comfortable with that, putting them on your shoulder, and then you move to greater heights like pulling them up along a tree.”
A friend of Burgess’s, Melissa Lewington, also participated in the event with her dog last year alongside Burgess and one other team member. She said the event was fun but “a little terrifying right at the start.”
“You have to climb a six-foot ladder with the dog, and then [there’s] a little bit of weirdness to get yourself set up. When you’re finished, you have a foot-wide ledge to stand on … But once you went over, it was fine,” Lewington said. “I still look back at the video I shot with my GoPro and I don’t even know how my dog trusted me to put up with the craziness.”
While the team of three was invited to return, Burgess is the only one able to make it this time around.
She said that while all eyes will be on her this year, she hopes others will consider supporting the event.
“[The fundraiser is] safe, you get training … and you go down at your own speed, so if you want to take forever you’re always welcome to go slow,” she said. “It’s kind of a neat thing to do for an excellent cause and I encourage people to put those fears aside and try it out.”