Feb. 5, 2009

By Amy Farnum Novin

St. Thomas University men’s basketball player B.J. Viau was just fourth-grader when his mother, Debbie, was diagnosed with a degenerative brain disorder called Huntington’s Disease, but even at that young age, he knew he could help in some way.

There is no cure for the hereditary disease that diminishes a person’s ability to walk, think, talk and reason over time.  There is also a 50 percent chance that a child of a person with the disease will inherit it, although Viau and his older sister Emily have not been tested.  Viau’s grandfather and great grandmother were victims of HD.

Following Debbie’s diagnosis about 13 years ago, the Viau family attended a basketball-oriented fundraiser for the Huntington’s Disease Society of America Minnesota chapter.  There were about 50 people in attendance, and it raised a few hundred dollars for the cause, but the event got the young Viau thinking.

“On the way home, I asked my dad -- as a fourth-grader not knowing anything -- if we could do something like that,” said Viau.  “It was fun, it was basketball and it was raising money for something that I knew was affecting my mom.” 

Viau’s father Brian agreed, and the “Hoop-a-thon” was born the following year in the family’s hometown of Apple Valley, Minn.  The basic idea was to get pledged donations to the HDSA for how many free throws a participant could make in five minutes, and the simple concept was immediately successful.

“For about two weeks, we told everyone we knew about it – family, friends, and people at school,” said Viau.  “I was telling people publicly that my mom had this disease so it was a little impactful for them.  We got some prizes from local businesses and used the local elementary school gym.  We had about 75 people come out and ended up raising $6,000.”

“The next year, we figured we’ll tell everyone who came to tell everyone they knew, and see if we could do more,” said Viau.  “We had about 150 people and raised $10,000.  It kind of just spread like fire.”

Over the past 11 years, the event has grown tenfold, and raising nearly half-million dollars for research of the devastating disease that currently does not have a cure.
“When I was younger my dad and mom, when she was able, did a lot (of the planning for the event),” said Viau.  “For the past six or seven years, my dad has done the majority of the work, but my sister and I have been very active in getting people and businesses involved, giving talks to our classmates and friends, and helping with any way we can get the word out.”
“We slowly turned that free-throw shooting event into a whole day that is a family-friendly carnival, where we have a bigger gym, and then a cafeteria with games, prizes, silent auctions, celebrity appearances and fun, interactive things for people who aren’t shooting at the time or do not want to shoot,” said Viau.

Now that B.J. and Emily are older, their father has turned over the reins of Hoop-a-thon, and the siblings are hoping to expand on the already successful fundraiser. 

“We’ve been doing a lot of the planning for the last month, which has been fun, “said Viau.  “We’re looking to bigger and better things.  I kind of see it as a family business now.”

Debbie Viau’s conditioned has deteriorated over the years, and she eventually moved to a group residence for patients with HD in Apple Valley in order to receive more care.  Despite the challenges, Debbie is still able to come out and attend the Hoop-a-thon annually.

“(The home) is a good place for her to be,” said Viau.  “She loves the Hoop-a-Thon.  It’s kind of like a big reunion for her.  She’s loves going out there and giving hugs to everybody she sees.”

This year, the 12th annual Twin Cities Hoop-a-thon will be held at the Falcon Ridge Middle School on April 5, and the Viaus are hoping to raise at least $50,000.

“People have been so willing to help out in a cause that other than me and my family they have no direct relationship to,” said Viau.  “If it weren’t for those people out there, it wouldn’t happen.  We can ask everyone, but no one has to say yes.  It’s been nice to have so many generous people out there and make the event what it is today.”

In the meantime, Viau is enjoying his time on the court as a starting guard for the top-ranked Tommies, who boast a 20-0 record.  The senior is the second-leading scorer on the squad with 10.8 points per game.

“It’s a lot of fun to be where we are right now,” said Viau.  “We’re very thankful, but we’re not taking anything for granted.  We’re trying to keep heads level.  Our goal is not to be undefeated and the No. 1 team in the country right now, but it’s to be there in two months.”

Viau and St. Thomas look to remain perfect when they travel to Carleton on Feb. 7 for a Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference match-up.

More information regarding the annual Hoop-a-thon event can be found at http://www.hoopathon.com.