Bert Vanmechelen is a lawyer who fights (often literally) for a good cause
Lawyer Bert Vanmechelen founded Fighters Against Cancer in 2014, you have to take that name literally: it started with a team of martial artists working for children with cancer. We interview him about it.
You used to be a pro boxer and semi-professional thaiboxer yourself, understandable that you promote martial arts but whence your commitment to children's cancer?
Mr Vanmechelen: I have always struggled with injustice in the broadest sense of the word. For me, a child getting cancer or becoming incurably ill is the most unjust thing in this world. A child doesn't get cancer because of some unhealthy lifestyle, a child is just brutally unlucky if it gets cancer.
Can you introduce non-profit organisation Fighters Against Cancer? What exactly does the non-profit organisation do?
Mr Vanmechelen: I founded Fighters Against Cancer in 2014, it started with fundraising through a team of martial artists participating in Levensloop of Kom Op Tegen Kanker (nvdr 24-hour run for charity). Our team's proceeds immediately raised 30,000 euros for KOTK the first year. But over time, I could no longer agree with Levensloop's vision, I wanted to find my own way and so Fighters Against Cancer became a non-profit organisation in 2016.
The non-profit organisation had two goals in mind: to showcase martial arts in a good light on the one hand and to raise funds for the benefit of children with cancer on the other. During the second weekend of May, we held another punching bag marathon where we rammed on a punching bag for 24 hours straight for charity.
It started with boxing...
Mr Vanmechelen: What once started with martial artists working for charity has since evolved into athletes in general. For example, we have recently been developing a new concept around Racing Against Cancer in which we are going to collaborate with a car team, a racing team that has had the wrap of 3 cars covered with the Fighters Against Cancer logo.
We also have a number of planes and helicopters supporting Racing Against Cancer, which will soon organise a day for patients with childhood cancer or another life-threatening disease. Flights in those planes and helicopters will then be raffled off on that day.
Cancer is no longer the sole charity of the non-profit organisation
Mr Vanmechelen: Gradually, our operation has expanded, for example we recently raised more than 159,000 euros for a pet pavilion that will open in a few weeks at Sint-Trudo hospital in Sint-Truiden. That is a pavilion where long-term sick people can have their pets come to visit them and do so in a safe and hygienic way.
This year, we are raising funds to build a garden of experiences for children with multiple disabilities and seriously ill children at the Villa Rozerood respite home in De Panne. A kind of snoozing area outside in the garden, including a barefoot path, a water curtain and a scent garden, to offer sensory stimuli to children with disabilities.
We also collaborate with Vincentius, a poverty alleviation organisation. Last autumn, we donated almost 25,000 euros to Vincentius Sint-Truiden, not money but clearly defined donations in the form of blankets, bedding and clothing.
Sponsors provide funds
Mr Vanmechelen: For all our projects, we are always looking for sponsors. For the pet pavilion, for example, we suddenly got a lot of sponsors from unexpected quarters: animal lovers but also motorbike clubs that organised fundraising events. We are very grateful to all those generous people, I think it is important to always thank everyone correctly, which we do for instance by giving our sponsors a bottle with a cocktail composed by Jurgen Lijcops, once First Sommelier of Belgium.
A search for new gadgets also often helps us get funds. For instance, a group of enthusiastic brewers recently launched the FAC.Triple.X beer, one third of the profit of which, when sold, goes to the non-profit organisation Fighters Against Cancer. Incidentally, the beer received a gold medal at a European beer competition two weeks ago.
Many hands make light work
Mr Vanmechelen: I put a lot of time and energy into the non-profit organisation, on average about 3 hours a day. Just think about e-mails, administration and the search for sponsors. Fortunately, I get a lot of help from my wife and other board members, who in turn do the financial part and communication. And above all, let's not forget the fantastic efforts of our many volunteers, who help us during events and when selling our gadgets. Everyone does this completely voluntarily too, because the non-profit association does not pay anyone a salary at all. This allows us to invest everything in the projects we support.
I started raising funds for children with cancer because I have always struggled with injustice in the broadest sense of the word. For me, a child getting cancer or becoming incurably ill is the most unjust thing in this world.
Your non-profit organisation is committed to children with cancer, as a lawyer you are training in juvenile law, surely I can see a link between your profession and your commitment to the non-profit organisation?
Mr Vanmechelen: I said it already, I have a hard time with injustice, I will also always rather stand up for the underdog, which is perhaps also why I actually almost only do criminal law. Martial arts also takes that underdog position a bit, martial arts still often has a bad name in the sports world and completely unjustified in my humble opinion. So I feel more comfortable taking on the role of the underdog and being able to defend the so-called underdogs.
Do you have another dream you want to realise with Fighters Against Cancer?
Mr Vanmechelen: So far, with all our projects together over the years we have brought in about 400,000 euros, I would like to get to a million euros and I would also like it if the organisation would continue to exist even when I am no longer around so that we can still move a small pebble in the river.