Couple using journey to discuss achieving goals despite Parkinson's diagnosis

A couple from Winnipeg is in Sudbury to pass on a message that a health diagnosis doesn't mean an end to achieving one's dreams. Steve Van Vlaenderen was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 2011, one year after he purchased a sailboat. His doctors told him he'd have to give up sailing.

Steve Van Vlaenderen, Darlene Hildebrand: "don't stop pursuing dreams because you have a condition"

Steve Van Vlaenderen and Darlene Hildebrand, of Winnipeg have completed the first leg of their sailing journey on the Great Lakes. They are driving back to Winnipeg and stopped in Sudbury on Wednesday. (Angela Gemmill/CBC)

A diagnosis of Parkinson's disease is not stopping a Winnipeg couple from achieving their dream of sailing the Great Lakes.

Steve Van Vlaenderen and his partner Darlene Hildebrand were in Sudbury Wednesday talking about their experience.

Van Vlaenderen  was diagnosed in 2011, one year after he bought his boat. His doctors told him he'd have to give up sailing.

"After a lifetime of dreaming about owning a sailboat I finally got one, got diagnosed and the doctor said 'I suggest you give up sailing because of lack of balance,'" he recalled.

Instead, the couple started planning their dream trip of sailing the Great Lakes.

"It was a lifetime dream of mine," Van Vlaenderen said.

In June, he and Hildebrand began the first leg of their journey, which they call Sail on with Parkinson's.

The trip began in Superior, Wisconsin on June 22. The couple docked their boat in Sarnia, Ont., on August 10.

The second leg of the journey is scheduled to start in Sarnia next June.

"I don't let Parkinson's stop me"

Van Vlaenderen admits it is difficult to sail with his disease. He has to pay attention and plans ahead.

"I don't let Parkinson's stop me; I don't let it define who I am, but I have to be very careful of what I do on the boat."

He also says he tries to anticipate any problems that could arise while out on the water, and is prepared when something comes up.

"If he does have to react he's already thought about it, and it's not having to come up with something that is very difficult to respond to in the middle of the lake," Hildebrand said.

After docking their boat a few weeks ago, the couple is now driving back to Winnipeg.

They stopped in Sudbury on Wednesday to speak at an event hosted by the Sudbury chapter of Parkinson Canada.

Find your way through diversity

Van Vlaenderen and Hildebrand are using their travel experience as an opportunity to spread a message that anything is possible.

"I believe that you shouldn't stop pursuing your dreams or goals because you have a condition. It doesn't matter if it's Parkinson's or what it is, don't let the disease define who you are," Van Vlaenderen said.

He says they try to show people they can do anything.

"You're handicapped a little bit, but so what. By facing diversity you just find your way through it, you work your way through it and you accomplish your goal."

Hildebrand agrees that people with a diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease don't have to give up the things they enjoy.

"Often time, whether it's the medical community or even care partners, think that they're doing the right thing by telling people 'take it easy, just take it easy and slow down'. What Steve is showing all of us is: try it," Hildebrand said.

"Don't be afraid to try," she added.

Van Vlaenderen and Hildebrand say meeting people along the way has been very memorable for them.

They had met Estelle Joliat, with the Sudbury chapter of Parkinson Canada, when they had docked their boat in Sault Ste Marie, Ont this summer.
Estelle Joliat is the community development coordinator with the Sudbury chapter of Parkinson Canada. (Angela Gemmill/CBC)

Joliat calls the sailing expedition motivating and inspiring.

"How to deal with obstacles, how to deal with challenges, unexpected events. There are a lot of lessons that they'd like to share," Joliat said.

"What we are hoping is that this story applies to anyone who had a dream, who really enjoyed something prior to their diagnosis, and to realize that they can still move forward with a lot of those, all the while making adjustments for their new diagnosis."

Parkinson Canada is holding its fundraising and awareness SuperWalk on Saturday, Sept. 8. The Sudbury event is planned for 11 a.m. at Delki Dozzi Park.

Hear the full interview here.


Angela Gemmill


Angela Gemmill is a CBC journalist who has covered news in Sudbury, Ont., for 15 years. Connect with her on Twitter @AngelaGemmill. Send story ideas to