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Get to Know: Natalie Spooner

Get to Know: Natalie Spooner

Natalie Spooner knows how to pump herself up. Whether it's telling herself she’s unstoppable or pumping breast milk for her baby in between periods of a professional hockey game, there doesn’t seem to be anything that can slow her down. It’s that kind of energy that makes her such a force on and off the ice and an integral part of helping get the PWHL to where it is now. Let’s get to know her.        Has hockey helped you affirm or realize any aspects of your identity or personality? I started playing hockey at four years old so it's always been a part of my life, and it’s taught me a lot about hard work, perseverance, and dedication. I don't think I would be the person I am without this sport. A lot of my personality has probably come from the energy I get from the teammates I’ve always been surrounded by. The best thing about being on a team is how much fun you have with your teammates. I think that has played a big role in shaping who I am.   I started playing hockey at four years old so it's always been a part of my life, and it’s taught me a lot about hard work, perseverance, and dedication. Why do you think it's important for women and girls to stay in sports? Teamwork, dedication, hard work, and time management—there are so many skills you learn through sports that I think everyone uses in their daily lives. It's so important for girls to have those experiences. For me, sports were always a great release. I’ve always felt free on the ice and just had so much fun playing. There's a lot of stress in the world, so why not go out, play a game, and have a lot of fun? Do you have any advice for young girls that are playing sports?  Believe in yourself. I think that that's the main thing. If I could go back, I would tell my little self to believe in myself and to know that you can achieve your dreams.  The other thing is that sports should be about having fun. I still remind myself every day to go back to thinking like that little girl who had so much fun playing hockey. That's what it's all about. So as long as you love what you're doing and having fun, it doesn’t feel like work. It's just fun. What do you think the development of the PWHL means for young women and hockey in general?  It means a lot. Not only are we able to have a career playing hockey, but all of those little girls who watch us get to have the dream of playing professional women's hockey, just like any little boy would have.  Is there anything that you wish non-athletes realized about professional women's hockey? I wish people knew more about all the amazing ladies that I get to play with and against. Before we had this professional league, there were ladies from all different walks of life: teachers, chiropractors, firefighters, police officers. Some women had full-time jobs and they would come and play hockey at night and be on the road all weekend.  This is the first year we’ve had a professional women's hockey league and we're able to make it into a career and have a salary. A lot of the ladies don't have to have side jobs or other careers now, and I think that’s amazing. It's going to help take women's hockey to the next level because everyone can focus on hockey and not have to worry about where their next paycheck is coming from.   This is the first year we’ve had a professional women's hockey league and we're able to make it into a career and have a salary. What was your involvement in getting the PWHL started? So in 2019, the CWL folded and we decided to come together, all the female hockey players, to create the PWHPA Players Association, and we ended up going on a Dream Gap tour. We played all across North America in all different rinks, and it was a great way to show there was a market for women's hockey.   From there we were lucky enough to get icons like Billie Jean King behind us. She’s one of the main people giving money. I don't think we could have gotten to where we are now without people like Billie Jean, Stan Kasten of the LA Dodgers, and Dana Halford. All of them really believed in the vision and we're just so lucky for their support. What it was like to become a mother as a professional athlete? It takes quite a bit of planning to start a family and then come back to sport. I had to time my pregnancy. So after the 2022 Beijing Olympics, we wanted to start a family, but I had set a goal I wanted to be back playing in the next world championships. Luckily, I got pregnant right away, and it all kind of went smoothly and I was able to achieve that goal. But it also meant that while I was playing hockey, I was still breastfeeding. So you were playing at this high level while you were still breastfeeding? Can you tell us about that? It was definitely a challenge. The time commitment that breastfeeding takes was one of the things that surprised me most about being a mom. I was able to bring him with me to most of the places I went because my mom would come along, too. But being away from him for games and practices, I had to get really good at being able to pump in the locker room or between periods. I had some pretty discrete pumps that I could just slip on in the locker room with the girls. I thought it was super funny when my teammates would look over and I’d be there pumping, and then either sending milk up or putting it in the fridge for after the game. When you're a high-performance athlete, you're trying to power through and so forth. Maintaining your milk and making sure you're drinking enough and eating enough was a struggle. During the world championships, we were in some pretty intense games. So that was hard, but I was able to make it through.    Being away from [my son] for games and practices, I had to get really good at being able to pump in the locker room or between periods. You were back playing hockey four months after you gave birth. What are some of the things that you didn't anticipate would impact your career as a professional athlete? I came back four months postpartum to play my first hockey game in the PWHPA to give myself a chance to get ready for the World Championships, which were around the five-month mark. There were so many unknowns going into pregnancy and training afterwards. I don't think I realized how much my body changed because it happened so slowly.   I came back four months postpartum to play my first hockey game in the PWHPA to give myself a chance to get ready for the World Championships. You kept skating until you were 36 weeks pregnant—what was that like? I just loved getting out on the ice and I think the rink was where I felt the most normal, before and after giving birth. It felt like some type of normalcy to go out there and get back to being with my teammates. Life as a new mom can be quite isolating, so to have my teammates around me again was really freeing and so much fun. It made me feel like myself again. How did you deal with the hunger, exhaustion, and sleep deprivation that pregnancy can cause?  So I found when I was breastfeeding, I was definitely eating way more every time I woke up in the night to feed. I also drank excessive amounts of water. Even when I was pregnant, I was so thirsty. I don't think I've felt that type of thirst before, but I just had to make sure I was eating whenever I was hungry and fueling my body. Is there anything else you want to share about your experience becoming a mom and having a career as a professional athlete? Were there any emotional impacts or unexpected challenges? When I became a mom, I did feel my priorities shift. Before, my whole life was built around hockey. And I would say I was a very selfish person in a sense. I was so committed to my training and that was really all that mattered. And then I had this baby that needed me and that I had to care for. When I would have to go away for games and bring him with me, my mom would come, but I still felt this sense of guilt when I was leaving him to go on the ice. At the same time, I knew this was what I needed.  So there was some learning to do there and some new balances to find between my love for hockey and my love for my baby. My baby takes priority, but I was able to find a pretty good balance between being a mom and coming back to play the sport I love. If you’re having a challenging time or need a confidence boost or something like that, are there any things you say to yourself? I tell myself to be unstoppable, and I just picture myself being so dominant. I literally just tell myself “Be unstoppable.”  We noticed you like to play in your Sparkle Balls™ and other H&B jewelry. Why do you find yourself drawn to it?  I remember when I got my first pair of Sparkle Balls™, I just loved the way I felt in them. It’s the same way now with my pearl Sparkle Balls™—I just feel really good whenever I wear them. They're my go-to's, and I have to wear the biggest ones.   I remember when I got my first pair of Sparkle Balls™️, I just loved the way I felt in them. Do you have any advice for women in general?  My advice for women would be to chase your dreams. No matter what. I can't say it's going to be easy. It's probably going to be difficult and there's going to be lots of twists and turns. But in the end, it's definitely worth it. You'll remember the journey more than the destination.    Chase your dreams. No matter what. By: Carter Selinger

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Get to Know: Natalie Spooner
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Get to Know: Natalie Spooner
Natalie Spooner knows how to pump herself up. Whether it's telling herself she’s unstoppable or pumping breast milk for her baby in between periods of a professional hockey game, there doesn’t seem to be anything that can slow her down. It’s that kind of energy that makes her such a force on and off the ice and an integral part of helping get the PWHL to where it is now. Let’s get to know her.        Has hockey helped you affirm or realize any aspects of your identity or personality? I started playing hockey at four years old so it's always been a part of my life, and it’s taught me a lot about hard work, perseverance, and dedication. I don't think I would be the person I am without this sport. A lot of my personality has probably come from the energy I get from the teammates I’ve always been surrounded by. The best thing about being on a team is how much fun you have with your teammates. I think that has played a big role in shaping who I am.   I started playing hockey at four years old so it's always been a part of my life, and it’s taught me a lot about hard work, perseverance, and dedication. Why do you think it's important for women and girls to stay in sports? Teamwork, dedication, hard work, and time management—there are so many skills you learn through sports that I think everyone uses in their daily lives. It's so important for girls to have those experiences. For me, sports were always a great release. I’ve always felt free on the ice and just had so much fun playing. There's a lot of stress in the world, so why not go out, play a game, and have a lot of fun? Do you have any advice for young girls that are playing sports?  Believe in yourself. I think that that's the main thing. If I could go back, I would tell my little self to believe in myself and to know that you can achieve your dreams.  The other thing is that sports should be about having fun. I still remind myself every day to go back to thinking like that little girl who had so much fun playing hockey. That's what it's all about. So as long as you love what you're doing and having fun, it doesn’t feel like work. It's just fun. What do you think the development of the PWHL means for young women and hockey in general?  It means a lot. Not only are we able to have a career playing hockey, but all of those little girls who watch us get to have the dream of playing professional women's hockey, just like any little boy would have.  Is there anything that you wish non-athletes realized about professional women's hockey? I wish people knew more about all the amazing ladies that I get to play with and against. Before we had this professional league, there were ladies from all different walks of life: teachers, chiropractors, firefighters, police officers. Some women had full-time jobs and they would come and play hockey at night and be on the road all weekend.  This is the first year we’ve had a professional women's hockey league and we're able to make it into a career and have a salary. A lot of the ladies don't have to have side jobs or other careers now, and I think that’s amazing. It's going to help take women's hockey to the next level because everyone can focus on hockey and not have to worry about where their next paycheck is coming from.   This is the first year we’ve had a professional women's hockey league and we're able to make it into a career and have a salary. What was your involvement in getting the PWHL started? So in 2019, the CWL folded and we decided to come together, all the female hockey players, to create the PWHPA Players Association, and we ended up going on a Dream Gap tour. We played all across North America in all different rinks, and it was a great way to show there was a market for women's hockey.   From there we were lucky enough to get icons like Billie Jean King behind us. She’s one of the main people giving money. I don't think we could have gotten to where we are now without people like Billie Jean, Stan Kasten of the LA Dodgers, and Dana Halford. All of them really believed in the vision and we're just so lucky for their support. What it was like to become a mother as a professional athlete? It takes quite a bit of planning to start a family and then come back to sport. I had to time my pregnancy. So after the 2022 Beijing Olympics, we wanted to start a family, but I had set a goal I wanted to be back playing in the next world championships. Luckily, I got pregnant right away, and it all kind of went smoothly and I was able to achieve that goal. But it also meant that while I was playing hockey, I was still breastfeeding. So you were playing at this high level while you were still breastfeeding? Can you tell us about that? It was definitely a challenge. The time commitment that breastfeeding takes was one of the things that surprised me most about being a mom. I was able to bring him with me to most of the places I went because my mom would come along, too. But being away from him for games and practices, I had to get really good at being able to pump in the locker room or between periods. I had some pretty discrete pumps that I could just slip on in the locker room with the girls. I thought it was super funny when my teammates would look over and I’d be there pumping, and then either sending milk up or putting it in the fridge for after the game. When you're a high-performance athlete, you're trying to power through and so forth. Maintaining your milk and making sure you're drinking enough and eating enough was a struggle. During the world championships, we were in some pretty intense games. So that was hard, but I was able to make it through.    Being away from [my son] for games and practices, I had to get really good at being able to pump in the locker room or between periods. You were back playing hockey four months after you gave birth. What are some of the things that you didn't anticipate would impact your career as a professional athlete? I came back four months postpartum to play my first hockey game in the PWHPA to give myself a chance to get ready for the World Championships, which were around the five-month mark. There were so many unknowns going into pregnancy and training afterwards. I don't think I realized how much my body changed because it happened so slowly.   I came back four months postpartum to play my first hockey game in the PWHPA to give myself a chance to get ready for the World Championships. You kept skating until you were 36 weeks pregnant—what was that like? I just loved getting out on the ice and I think the rink was where I felt the most normal, before and after giving birth. It felt like some type of normalcy to go out there and get back to being with my teammates. Life as a new mom can be quite isolating, so to have my teammates around me again was really freeing and so much fun. It made me feel like myself again. How did you deal with the hunger, exhaustion, and sleep deprivation that pregnancy can cause?  So I found when I was breastfeeding, I was definitely eating way more every time I woke up in the night to feed. I also drank excessive amounts of water. Even when I was pregnant, I was so thirsty. I don't think I've felt that type of thirst before, but I just had to make sure I was eating whenever I was hungry and fueling my body. Is there anything else you want to share about your experience becoming a mom and having a career as a professional athlete? Were there any emotional impacts or unexpected challenges? When I became a mom, I did feel my priorities shift. Before, my whole life was built around hockey. And I would say I was a very selfish person in a sense. I was so committed to my training and that was really all that mattered. And then I had this baby that needed me and that I had to care for. When I would have to go away for games and bring him with me, my mom would come, but I still felt this sense of guilt when I was leaving him to go on the ice. At the same time, I knew this was what I needed.  So there was some learning to do there and some new balances to find between my love for hockey and my love for my baby. My baby takes priority, but I was able to find a pretty good balance between being a mom and coming back to play the sport I love. If you’re having a challenging time or need a confidence boost or something like that, are there any things you say to yourself? I tell myself to be unstoppable, and I just picture myself being so dominant. I literally just tell myself “Be unstoppable.”  We noticed you like to play in your Sparkle Balls™ and other H&B jewelry. Why do you find yourself drawn to it?  I remember when I got my first pair of Sparkle Balls™, I just loved the way I felt in them. It’s the same way now with my pearl Sparkle Balls™—I just feel really good whenever I wear them. They're my go-to's, and I have to wear the biggest ones.   I remember when I got my first pair of Sparkle Balls™️, I just loved the way I felt in them. Do you have any advice for women in general?  My advice for women would be to chase your dreams. No matter what. I can't say it's going to be easy. It's probably going to be difficult and there's going to be lots of twists and turns. But in the end, it's definitely worth it. You'll remember the journey more than the destination.    Chase your dreams. No matter what. By: Carter Selinger
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Growing in Tandem: Kayla Kaliszuk and Kirsten MacDonell Talk Motherhood, Business, and YEG BOSS BABES
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Growing in Tandem: Kayla Kaliszuk and Kirsten MacDonell Talk Motherhood, Business, and YEG BOSS BABES
Not too long ago, Kirsten MacDonell was having a lunch meeting at Earl’s. She noticed her server—a woman in her early twenties—eavesdropping on her conversation, clearly interested in the words being exchanged over shared appies and salads. When Kirsten signed off on the bill, the server saw an opportunity to jump in. “Are you from YEG BOSS BABES?,” she asked, the same way you might ask a celebrity to confirm their identity. “I am!” replied Kirsten. “I love what you’re doing,” the server said. “Keep doing what you’re doing.”  For Kirsten, moments like this illuminate the true value of what she and YEG BOSS BABES co-founder, Kayla Kaliszuk, are doing. “It’s like, ooh, they’re into it,” says Kirsten. “Our work makes a mark in society, and we want to continue.”  When you think of a typical “networking event,” what comes to mind? Probably a lot of suits. Probably a large, nondescript conference space or ballroom full of business types, chatting stiffly about growth or returns or establishing a brand identity. Probably lots of grey. Lots of black. Lots of men.  This, at least, is the atmosphere Kirsten faced most often while working in sales for a large company. “The networking stuff we went to was 95% men. There weren’t a lot of women attending,” she says. “And the feedback I was getting from coworkers was like, ‘I was so uncomfortable going to those events because I didn’t feel like I could relate to anybody.’” Kirsten decided to create a space where networking wouldn’t be such an intimidating, dude-driven experience. As a “solopreneur” herself (Kirsten has her own photography business in addition to a sales job) she knew how hard it was to gather resources and grow a business without a support network. She texted a few friends, including Kayla, a fellow small business owner, and asked if they were interested in starting a wine club (a terrific way to generate interest). “We can go to each other’s houses, meet women who are doing similar things, and swap resources,” Kirsten said over the group text. “Kirsten sent us a logo and we were like, ‘this is awesome, let’s do it!,’” says Kayla.  Fast forward a couple years and YEG BOSS BABES—the outcome of the wine club—is now a thriving business with over 139 members and 1700 email subscribers. Their mission? To connect women entrepreneurs with the resources and community they need to grow and thrive in business. “I feel like more and more women are wanting the freedom to start their own business, but they don’t have friends or resources to lean on,” says Kayla.  That’s where YEG BOSS BABES (YBB) comes in. Led by Kirsten, Kayla, and additional co-founder Amy Bender, YBB hosts everything from vision board workshops to holiday mixers to seminars with award-winning women entrepreneurs—“yegsperts,” as they’re called. They also have a membership program. Perks include a space on the YBB directory page (a beautifully-designed online database of women-run businesses in Edmonton), event discounts, and professional headshots. “We find that professional photos really help elevate a business,” says Kayla.  Kayla and Kirsten run YBB with a distinct (and rare) lack of corporate stuffiness: it wouldn’t be uncommon to find a photobooth, cupcake tower, or gorgeous floral display at their events. They’re not afraid to be explicitly feminine in their branding and event curation because not only does it feel authentic to them, but it creates an atmosphere that women find appealing and welcoming. “The typical entrepreneur look has really changed and we’re happy to be trailblazers in that,” Kirsten says. “We can be professional but we can still be ourselves.” “I didn’t used to like pink but now I’m obsessed with it!” laughs Kayla.  For Kayla and Kirsten, staying true to themselves also means staying at home to raise their families. That’s partly why running YEG BOSS BABES is such an ideal enterprise for them both: they can be mothers and entrepreneurs simultaneously. “Even before we had kids, it was our goal to be at home and raise our kids,” says Kayla. “I’m so supportive of people who go to their nine-to-fives and have that career but it’s not for me personally.”  Kirsten feels the same. “It’s all about taking control of your schedule for your family,” she says, adding that integrating your work life with your family life shouldn’t be seen as a gold standard for all women. “Don’t let society define what having it all is,” she says. “That’s how you get in trouble and burn out.” “Yeah. Everyone has their own needs,” adds Kayla.  If Kirsten and Kayla seem in-sync professionally, you should see them as mothers. At the time of our interview, Kayla was weeks away from giving birth to her second child, while Kirsten had a two-week-old baby girl at home. “Before we started a business, that was the plan: to be pregnant together,” Kayla says. But the reality of near-simultaneous pregnancies was a little daunting at first.  “It’s not that Kayla wasn’t excited to be pregnant at the same time as me,” says Kirsten. “But from a professional standpoint, she was like, ‘oh no, what are we going to do? We’re due two months apart! How will the business be affected?’”   To their surprise, their dual pregnancies affected the business positively, in part because the demands of (impending) motherhood meant passing along jobs to other women and hiring new people to help run YEG BOSS BABES. “I think if the pregnancies didn’t happen, we would have kept trying to do it all ourselves,” says Kayla. “In order to grow a business, you do need to let go a bit.” There have of course been personal benefits to growing—both in a physical and business sense—in tandem. “It’s one of the coolest things ever to walk through life at the same time with someone,” says Kirsten. “Especially as close friends, and especially professionally. We just get each other.” Their lives may be closely entwined, but Kayla and Kirsten maintain separate, unique working lives outside the Boss Babes umbrella. Kirsten, for example, has a photography business. Her favourite niche is boudoir, which she loves for the unexpected, personal benefits it gives clients. “I love meeting all shapes and sizes of women and getting to know their journey with their body and self-confidence,” Kirsten says, adding that letting clients see the editing process is particularly inspiring. “Showing them unedited photos and showing them how beautiful they are is the point of boudoir for me. It’s empowering, really.”  Kayla has a creative side, too, which she puts to use in several family business ventures, including a soap-making business she co-created with her mom (Cherry Creek Soap Co) and her husband’s lifestyle brand, Flossy Bumz. But Kayla’s main focus right now is Boss Babes. “I have an entrepreneurial spirit. I like to start businesses, grow them, and then pass them off. I have a drive to be creative and busy.” Boss Babes is growing fast—in members and visibility. Kirsten’s celebrity moment at Earl’s is one of several instances of public recognition, a sure sign she and Kayla have tapped into an underserved demographic—women in business. “We’re trying to set ourselves apart from what other companies do. So we’ll ask people, what types of workshops do you want to see? And we try to bring that to them,” Kayla says. Paying attention to their community has also illuminated how strongly people, particularly women, are craving support networks that benefit them in an all-encompassing sense. “We recognize that entrepreneurs don’t just need professional assistance,” says Kirsten. “They need personal assistance, too, and so we provide mental wellness services and those types of events as well.” In other words, they’re refusing to view the Business Self as separate from the Emotional Self or the Mom Self or the Friend Self. All of these selves are integrated; all of the parts need to be healthy for the whole to function properly.  At the end of the day—or, more likely, in the wee hours of the morning—Kayla and Kirsten’s kids serve as their biggest motivational sources. “Now that I have a daughter, I just want to grow a community that looks exactly like what YEG BOSS BABES is growing,” Kirsten says, adding that it’s especially important to highlight this mission in online spaces like Instagram, where negativity often flourishes. “Putting something like Boss Babes out there into the universe—women supporting women in a genuine community—it’s really important. It’s the main drive.”  Meanwhile, Kayla is proving to be quite the role model for her son who, being integrated into her working life (he often accompanies her to meetings and sees her work from home), believes he is an entrepreneur himself. At age four. “He thinks he sells houses!” Kayla laughs. “He’ll be like, oh yeah, I got a lot of work to do. A lot of people want a house today.”  “He gets to watch his mom be a bad-ass! Then he goes to work,” Kirsten says. Kayla’s son’s real estate career offers solid proof that anyone can be a Boss Babe, if only they put their mind to it.   Writer: Mica LemiskiPhotos: Janelle Dudzic Photography & Nicole Constante PhotographyLocation: @homebyblondy
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What Glass Ceiling?: Kayla Ledohowski-Becker On Defying Stereotypes, Selling Cars, and Resisting the Term “Male-Dominated.”
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What Glass Ceiling?: Kayla Ledohowski-Becker On Defying Stereotypes, Selling Cars, and Resisting the Term “Male-Dominated.”
Kayla Ledohowski-Becker has been fighting expectations for a long time. As the daughter of a prominent hotel family in Winnipeg, Kayla has long been recognized locally for her last name—not always positively. “I was always being poked at for having a silver spoon in my mouth, which is not actually how I grew up,” Kayla says.  It’s a problem faced often by children of wealthy or successful parents: you become known as an extension of your family as opposed to an individual. And specifically for Kayla, the accusation that she was cushioned in privilege wasn’t accurate.  Starting when she was 15, Kayla worked as a server and hostess in her family’s hotel restaurant. Despite her tireless work ethic, she found it difficult to cast off assumptions that she had it easy. “At the time, those accusations would really bother me,” she says. Her frustration gave way to determination. “I knew I had to work a little harder. It made me want to prove myself.” Her frustration gave way to determination. “I knew I had to work a little harder. It made me want to prove myself.” And so at 18, while enrolled as a full-time student in university, Kayla left the family business to work in other restaurants, eventually landing a job as the manager of an Earls when she was only 20. “I love hospitality. I like talking and interacting with people. I think hospitality helps give you life experience through the people you meet.” Earls proved to be a huge turning point for Kayla and her career, but not in the way she expected. A group of regulars—who also happened to work for the Birchwood Automotive Group, the largest network of car dealerships in Winnipeg—suggested she come sell cars with them. “They casually tried to recruit me every time they were in,” Kayla recalls. Much like scouts at a hockey game, these businessmen had noted Kayla’s exceptional work ethic and potential. She had a bright future. They wanted her on their team.  “At that point I didn’t even know how to put air in my tires!” Kayla laughs. As a restaurant manager with a ceilinged income, Kayla worked a ton of unpaid hours to run the restaurant to her high standard. (Once, she even stayed until 4:00 AM to set up for a corporate event, simply because she wanted to make the experience special for her staff.) The new, potential job piqued her interest. “I wanted to work in a business that rewarded me for my discretionary effort.”  Kayla landed the job with Birchwood Automotive. Actually, she landed a few jobs, at several of Birchwood’s dealerships around the city, but she chose to accept a job as a sales specialist at Jaguar Land Rover Volvo Winnipeg—an exceptional place of work for the fact that it had a female sales manager. “That’s probably one of the reasons I ended up starting in the store,” Kayla says. “There were next to no women in forward-facing customer roles at the time.” This was only nine years ago.  Kayla had tapped into a phenomenon well known to women in so-called male-dominated industries: it often takes women to hire women. “People are always so drawn to what is comfortable and familiar,” Kayla says. “When all the managers are men, they’re generally comfortable dealing in a certain way. When you’re bringing in females it changes the dynamic.” This isn’t to say that employers should not be held accountable for outdated recruitment practices—hiring women and other underrepresented groups should not be seen as a risk, but rather an opportunity to explore new ideas and evolve the business. That said, awareness of comfort-zone hiring preferences gives female employers a powerful incentive to improve the gender distribution of their workplaces. Kayla can speak to this personally. After transitioning to the role of sales manager at the Birchwood Ford dealership in 2013—a decision prompted by her desire to gain experience outside the luxury realm—Kayla took an active role in reshaping what was, at the time, a bit of an old boy’s club. “That was my first role where I had a team and was hiring people, and so I was able to bring women on board.” The store went from having zero female salespeople multiple, all hired in part by Kayla. “One of those women is one of  the top salesperson at Ford to this day. She has been for a long time.” Kayla made other changes, too, including the introduction of new protocol to ensure all customers—regardless of whether they were buying a luxury vehicle—received a luxury-type buying experience. “They’re people and they’re buying cars. The treatment shouldn’t be different.” Her dedication to inclusivity in customer service led to a prestigious designation for the dealership. In 2016, Birchwood Ford was given the President’s Diamond Club Award in recognition of their excellent customer service. “It’s one of the biggest accomplishments I’ve been a part of to date in my automotive career.” Kayla is also a proud member of Women of Automotive Leadership, a committee founded by MaryAnne Kempe (Birchwood Automotive’s Chief of Human Resources) that creates support services for women of Birchwood Automotive and hosts networking events to encourage recruitment. “Don’t put too much emphasis on the fact that something is ‘male dominated.’ If you’re the person in the right role, you can change that.” Still, there are daily challenges Kayla faces as a woman in automotive. For one, she’s often mistaken as a receptionist by customers and store vendors. These interactions don’t bother Kayla; she views them as opportunities to educate. “I think these moments are really critical for change,” she says. Instead of taking offense in these moments, Kayla starts a conversation. “I want to wow people. Being the best version of myself allows me to show people that this is a changing world, and women are just as capable, if not moreso, than their male counterparts.”  If it seems like Kayla is well-versed in the language of human interaction and communication—that’s because she is. She has a Master’s Degree in psychology, which she completed in 2012 while working full-time in automotive. Getting her Master’s wasn’t motivated by a desire for a new career or higher earning potential (she loved her job and planned to stay in automotive) but rather a desire to learn and explore. “If I won the lottery I would be a career student. I’d get a medical license just for fun!,” she laughs, explaining that her “nerdy” tendencies developed in high school and never really dissipated. In university, for example, she studied religion purely for the sake of attending lectures with professors who were passionate about their field instead of money. “I’m not religious at all, but since studying religion doesn’t lead to many career options, the professors with Master’s Degrees and Doctorates all truly love the topic. Sitting in those classes was so engaging and inspiring for me!” Perhaps “nerdiness,” as a term, needs a re-branding, because in the context of Kayla’s life, nerdiness reads more like passion to learn and problem-solve. Problem solving is what keeps Kayla feeling most like herself on a day-to-day basis. As the General Sales Manager for Volvo Land Rover Jaguar (she returned to this dealership in 2017) her mission is not so different from when she worked in restaurants as a server: she wants to build relationships and work with a team towards a common goal. “What helps keep me feeling like Kayla, as opposed to someone who simply sells cars, is coaching my team. In those moments we’re not selling cars. We’re engaging on a human level and having real conversations.” Kayla is also helping start conversations outside the automotive industry—or, on top of it, actually. Last summer, a coworker and former beekeeper suggested they cover the roof of the Volvo dealership with beehives. Kayla was all in. “Bees are extraordinary pollinators and they’re so important to the general ecosystem. We wanted to start educating people about bees, and so we took a chance and put the bee hives on the roof.” The project, done in partnership with Beeproject Apiaries, was a huge success: there were over 70,000 bees on top of the Volvo dealership at one point. The hives also proved to be a talking point, generating people’s interest in sustainability and healthy living. The bee project led to further community action, too, such as honey extraction workshops and bee-specific teaching initiatives at inner city schools. “It’s all about making connections in the community,” says Kayla. “We sell cars, but it’s not who we are.” In other words, Kayla and her team are a far-cry from hackneyed stereotypes of car salespeople on TV: those greedy, grimy, anything-for-money men. Kayla loves selling cars, but there’s one term, often applied to her field, that bothers her: male-dominated. Men still outnumber women by a large proportion in the world of car sales, but that discrepancy is not something Kayla wants to foreground in talking about her job. “I have a hard time saying ‘male-dominated’ out loud because to me, if you want to do something, go do it.” As in, calling something ‘male-dominated’ sets up unnecessary barriers. “Don’t put too much emphasis on the fact that something is ‘male dominated.’ If you’re the person in the right role, you can change that.” Take it from someone who knows.   Writer: Mica LemiskiPhotos: Provided
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Redefining the CEO: How Rachel Mielke Went From Small Scale Jewellery Maker to Big Time Changemaker
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Redefining the CEO: How Rachel Mielke Went From Small Scale Jewellery Maker to Big Time Changemaker
Wearing a long black shift dress accented with a statement necklace, Rachel Mielke mingles at the Grand Opening of the newest Hillberg & Berk retail location in Calgary. A customer—one who has braved the 100-person line of people wanting to check out the new store—pulls her aside, clearly with something to say.   Rachel is no stranger to admiration-filled exchanges with customers. As the founder and CEO of Hillberg & Berk, her level of visibility is such that brand-followers often recognize her in public. “Social media has really become the main source of people’s content consumption,” she says. Appearing regularly on Hillberg & Berk’s Instagram and Facebook accounts, Rachel is part of the CEO-turned-celebrity phenomenon unique to the digital age. This particular customer has more to say than most. “I’ve followed the brand for 10 years,” she says, sporting a mix of new and vintage Hillberg & Berk pieces. “I love your brand and your story so much that I went with my husband for a special trip to Regina—just so I could go to the first Hillberg & Berk store.”  This is a first for Rachel. Her Regina-based jewellery company has seen her through some pretty fantastic milestones (a showcase at the Oscars, designing a brooch for Her Majesty the Queen, a partnership with Tessa Virtue—you get it, she’s made it) but to have someone visit the flagship store as if it were a museum is another level of wow. “It blew me away that there are people passionate enough about the brand that they would plan a trip around it.” The thought of Regina as a fashion or jewellery destination would have been unthinkable to an 18-year-old Rachel Mielke. Lack of a “scene” in Saskatchewan was in part why she opted for a business degree instead of something more artistic. “I loved fashion but I was aware of the reality that there was very little fashion in Saskatchewan when I graduated in 1998, and so my main focus was to make a business for myself.” Even if she didn’t think she would build a career in fashion, she maintained a desire to create, and to express herself through design, from a young age. She recalls spending hours in her parents’ basement, meticulously placing coloured pegs into her Lite-Brite board. “My mom would come downstairs and say, ‘why are you sitting in the dark?’ Turn the light on!’ And I’d say ‘noooo, it’s cooler with the lights off!’”  She was equally enamored with Rainbow Brite. “My whole room was Rainbow Brite. That character definitely influenced my brand and my fashion today,” she says, referencing the bold colours and gems now signature to Hillberg & Berk. The character was more than just an aesthetic inspiration for Rachel. Rachel’s goal to help women “sparkle”—through not only the jewellery she makes but also a variety of charitable initiatives—is a modern twist on Rainbow Brite’s mission to bring colour to the world. “I remember buying $300 worth of supplies and thinking it was a fortune!” she recalls. From those materials she made herself a statement necklace. “I put it on and thought, wow, this is really special. I want to do more of this.” Growing up in a financially-tight household, Rachel had to employ creativity, as opposed to a credit card, to realize her fashion goals early on. After digging out her mom’s 1970s sewing machine and teaching herself how to sew, she developed a knack for making second-hand look chic. “I started deconstructing my clothes and re-sewing them together. I was making fashion that I couldn’t afford to buy otherwise.” She also began making simple jewellery, but it wasn’t until after business school that she made her first luxury item. With money she’d saved from working multiple jobs, Rachel travelled to a specialty gem shop in Edmonton and bought a selection of Bali sterling silver, Swarovski crystals, and freshwater pearls. “I remember buying $300 worth of supplies and thinking it was a fortune!” she recalls. From those materials she made herself a statement necklace. “I put it on and thought, wow, this is really special. I want to do more of this.”  The requests for her designs began to pile up and, fueled by encouragement from friends, Rachel decided to put her business degree to use in a notoriously tough realm: the jewellery industry. The first hurdle to overcome was a lack of market knowledge, which she overcame through travel. “I went to every single place I’d read was an incredible source of craftsmanship until I built my knowledge of the industry globally,” she says. But the male-dominated industry did not initially recognize Rachel as a force. “People didn’t want to work with me. I was a start-up, so that was an issue too, but they certainly didn’t look at me, a 25-year old woman, and take me seriously enough to say, ‘hey I’m gonna take a chance on you.’” “I want everyone to feel what I felt when I put on that first piece of special jewellery.” Rachel learned to market her ideas with confidence and strength. “The key was finding people who believed in me. It was also learning how to sell myself, my story, and convince people that I was going to make it.” Over 15 years later and she has, most definitely, made it. Hillberg & Berk is a nationally-recognized brand with global ambitions. Their 31,000 square-foot office in Regina’s warehouse district features gorgeous chandeliers, plush furniture, and the bustling energy of a newsroom about to break an important story. Yet Rachel’s in-office presence is a far cry from boss-woman caricatures seen and mythologized in Hollywood. She’s no Miranda Priestly, in other words, and if you run into her in public, she’s more likely to gift you a piece of jewellery than demand a favour. “I want everyone to feel what I felt when I put on that first piece of special jewellery. But sometimes I only have what’s on my body, and so I give it away!”  Giving away jewellery is but one way Rachel is disrupting the pithy maxim that luxury is exclusive. “On a global stage, H&B is one of very few brands that is truly changing the narrative on how brands impact the community, but also how brands change what women think of themselves.” Rachel is redefining what it means to be a brand leader through her personal style as well. Sometimes she shows up to the Hillberg & Berk headquarters in ripped jeans, sneakers, and a cool t-shirt. Other times, she elevates her style by pairing a simple dress with pops of Sparkle. “I have learned to dress my body type and just stick to what works. I found a great dress this season and I bought it in five colours.” Her clothes and accessories reflect her mission to feel confident, not necessarily cutting-edge, and she hopes this model will inspire women to view fashion as a source of self-expression as opposed to a set of stifling ideals. “I don’t think society should be so prescriptive in terms of telling us how to dress, especially in the work environment. I love that we’re coming into a time where, as women, we’re feeling more comfortable defining our own personal style.” Rachel may be forward-thinking, but she still gleans wisdom from the past—specifically, from the kaleidoscope she had as a child. A large red tube with a textured baroque pattern, Rachel’s kaleidoscope was a source of wonder for her younger self but has since acquired a  philosophical weight. In her keynotes, panels, and workshops (most of which focus on female empowerment and its links to social change) Rachel often references the kaleidoscope as a metaphor for our lives, hoping to inspire a deeper sense of gratitude within her audience. “So often we focus on the small, insignificant parts of our lives. We all have challenges, but the majority of life is amazing—if we just choose to focus on it.” Writer: Mica LemiskiPhotos: Provided At Hillberg & Berk, our dream is to empower women to see their own unique strengths, beauty and potential — what we call ‘sparkle’ — and inspire them to help other women see theirs, too.
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Taking Her Power Back: Deanna Ratzlaff Talks Tattoos, Breast Cancer, and Feeling Pretty
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Taking Her Power Back: Deanna Ratzlaff Talks Tattoos, Breast Cancer, and Feeling Pretty
Upon hearing her diagnosis, Deanna Ratzlaff began to argue with the radiologist. The idea that she had cancer was too far-fetched—it couldn’t be true. “I had a mammogram before and it was fine,” she said to the doctor, referring to the tests she’d undergone five years prior. Deanna had gone to the clinic that day for a routine appointment. She was 44. The mammogram was done out of responsibility as opposed to concern. “Yes, well…” said the doctor, showing her a set of pictures. “This is that mammogram, and this is this mammogram.” The images were completely different. One showed a healthy set of breasts. The other showed multiple lumps—breast cancer. They diagnosed her on the spot. “I always call that moment my hijacking,” says Deanna, now 48. “Because, at that point, life as you know it is totally changed.” Amplifying Deanna’s shock that day was the fact that she did not feel sick at all. “I was feeling amazing. I had been going to the gym five days a week, I had a trainer, and I was eating well.” Six weeks later she underwent a double mastectomy. “It seems like once you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, everything goes on high speed.” She adds that information overload and a barrage of unfamiliar medical terminology made it easy to slip into “yes mode”—agreeing to procedures and treatments without questioning them because you don’t know what other options exist. As a medical lab technician, Deanna was equipped to absorb and understand more information than the average patient, but she still found herself making life-changing decisions at a very fast pace. One such decision was to have her breasts reconstructed immediately after her mastectomy, an option she chose over prosthetics, “going flat,” or reconstruction at a later date. Her choice to have her breasts reconstructed wasn’t some profound gesture to reclaim an important part of herself. “I actually didn’t love my breasts,” she says, explaining that she chose immediate reconstruction for practical reasons: it would save her from the hassle of prosthetics as well as a potential future surgery. “And I never would have been comfortable with going flat,” she says. “I know lots of women are, but I always say I’m too vain.” In this case, “vanity” could just as easily be called self-awareness. Deanna didn’t want to live her life without breasts. She wanted to be able to fit into women’s clothes, the way she always had. She wanted to feel pretty. Vanity, under certain circumstances, can actually be empowering. As Deanna continued her post-surgery treatment—undergoing chemotherapy and navigating a circus of medical appointments—she began to look for a peer support group with whom she could discuss her experiences, exchange information, and share coping strategies. There was no such thing—at least not in Saskatoon. And so along with three women she’d met at a Skills For Healing cancer seminar, Deanna founded (and continues to facilitate) Breast Cancer Support Saskatoon, a peer led support group that provides people diagnosed with breast cancer an opportunity to meet and discuss what they’re going through. “It’s worked amazingly well to bring support and information to other women,” Deanna says. “It’s been a source of healing for me as well. Being able to share with people who get it.” That’s the thing about breast cancer: not everyone “gets it.” We may understand cancer as a horrible, life-altering disease, but only personal experience can bring a true understanding of how the illness uniquely terrorizes the mind and body. That’s in part why peer groups like BCSS are so important: they allow members to access community through shared experience, helping to relieve the sense of isolation brought on traumatic experiences—feeling like a foreigner in your own body, for example. “You look at pictures of yourself before you were diagnosed and you don’t even recognize that person anymore. But you also don’t recognize the person you are in the current moment. You wonder, who am I?” Losing pieces of yourself, both literally and figuratively, is an experience common to all breast cancer patients. “When you go through surgery, you lose your breasts and then you heal from that, and then you go through chemo and you lose even more.” Your hair. Your energy. Your ability to go to work. It can make a person feel utterly powerless, so much so that owning labels like “brave” or “strong” becomes difficult. “Everybody tells you have brave you are, saying things like, ‘oh you’re such a warrior.’ But you have no choice but to be brave. And you don’t really realize how strong you have to be until you’re thrown into that situation.” But what does strength actually look like when you’re sick? For Deanna, strength meant getting up everyday and applying her make-up. To look beautiful when she felt like crap was to take her power back, one brush stroke at a time. “I made myself look pretty just so I could actually feel pretty again,” she says. Tattooing her breasts was another way Deanna took back control amidst uncontrollable circumstances. “I just knew I didn’t want to look at my scars all the time,” she says. She began to browse different artists and their tattoos. She fell in love with florals. “I thought, wow, if I could have these tattoos and not see my scars anymore, it would be amazing.” And so now, instead of scars, Deanna sees beautiful flowers. “I always said I would never get breast implants and I never would get tattoos…and now I have both!” she laughs. Another thing she likely didn’t predict doing? Modelling topless. In 2016, Deanna helped bring an initiative of the Canadian Cancer Society called BRA Day (Breast Reconstruction Awareness Day) to Saskatoon. The event occurs every October in cities across Canada—now including Saskatoon, thanks to Deanna and her team—and provides breast cancer survivors and previvors with space and time to discuss reconstructive options with leading surgeons and plastic surgeons. One of the highlights of the event is the Show and Tell Lounge, where live volunteers display the results of their breast reconstructions. Deanna was one such model in 2016. The experience was a milestone. “I finally felt pretty again. It was like, this is me.” She adds that many BRA Day participants initially deemed her tattoos “pretty, but not for me.” But after these participants completed their walk through the showroom, they’d often come back and ask Deanna,“who did your tattoos?” In showcasing herself that day, Deanna was showcasing options, providing knowledge. Giving power back. Standing shirtless, she exemplified that beauty was still possible amidst illness.  Although Deanna presently has what doctors call “no evidence of disease,” it turns out that “cancer free” is a bit of a fallacy. “Once you have gone through breast cancer, you’re looking over your shoulder every single day wondering when it’s going to come back. I’m essentially cancer free but how do you really know?” This sense of not-knowing has given Deanna a new appreciation for her everyday life. “I don’t ever wish that I’d had cancer, but I am a better person now that I have gone through it,” she says, adding that she’s a more compassionate person since becoming sick. “I feel a lot more love than I used to, especially for others who are struggling. It’s not up to me to judge anybody. It’s up to me to love and accept them exactly as they are.” But sometimes the toughest person to accept is yourself. “It’s a struggle. You fight to get back to [your level of fitness] but trying to accept yourself is a process.” She adds that having the motivation to do things she once loved—going to the gym, say—is especially tricky. “It’s so difficult because you still remember what your body was like before cancer, and what you were able to do before cancer, and so you kind of beat yourself up because you’re not at that spot.” Yoga and meditation have helped Deanna avoid a self-criticism spiral. “These practices have really helped centre me.” They’ve also led to an increased sense of gratitude: “I try to remember that when I’m having a bad day now, it’s just a bad day. I get to go home and start over tomorrow. I always say: a bad day of work is still better than a good day of chemo.” Perhaps the best advice of all? Talk to yourself like a friend. “I always say to people—give yourself the same advice you’d give to a best friend going through the same thing. Once you start talking to yourself in the same way, your perspective shifts. You’re kinder to yourself.”   Writer: Mica LemiskiPhotos: Nancy Newby Photography and Tonya Wanner Photography
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Building Families Out of Strangers: Karen Sherbut On Overcoming Homelessness and Creating a Safe Haven for At-Risk Girls
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Building Families Out of Strangers: Karen Sherbut On Overcoming Homelessness and Creating a Safe Haven for At-Risk Girls
Karen Sherbut was sixteen when she ran away from home. It was January, 1975, and the day had begun somewhat typically: she’d had a fight with her stepmom, one that would need to be “discussed” with her father when he arrived home. The problem? “Discussion” was often a physical event. Violent. “He would come home in his drunken stupors and I could tell from the way the door closed whether it was going to be a good night or a bad night,” she remembers. “I had my hiding spots, but he always found me.” Later that afternoon, pencil poised over a math test, Karen began to shake. She couldn’t take it anymore. “I realized I needed to do something if I wanted to start living instead of just existing,” she says. And so when she came home from school that evening to find her father standing in the doorway waiting for her, she turned and ran. “I knew that every step I took away from that house was one step closer to safety,” she recalls. “It sounds bizarre, but it’s a common feeling for so many homeless and runaway kids—that the streets and its unknowns are safer than what you’re running from.” Also propelling Karen to run was the knowledge that no one else was going to fight for her safety. Although neighbours had previously made calls the police due to violence they’d overheard, no action had ever been taken against the abuse in her home. “Times were different back then,” she says. “It was taboo to talk about domestic violence and child abuse. Everyone turned a blind eye because, if they had to look at it, they had to do something about it.” “I realized I needed to do something if I wanted to start living instead of just existing.” Doing something about it was exactly what Karen did on the day she ran. It’s also what she continues to do now as the Co-founder and President of the Safe Haven Foundation, a non-profit whose mission is to keep homeless and at-risk girls safe, in a stable home, and at school. One way they accomplish this mission is through housing at Haven’s Way™, the core project of the Safe Haven Foundation. A long term home that provides live-in support “parents” in the hopes of re-creating a loving home environment, Haven’s Way™ is about building a family out of strangers for Calgary girls aged 14-24. “It’s everything you can think of in terms of a healthy, functioning family. There are family dinners, homework, chores, recreational outings—all with a focus on goal setting and healing. We’re still pretty unique in the world in terms of what we do,” she says. That uniqueness hasn’t gone unnoticed: in 2002, Karen was awarded Global News’ Calgary Woman of Vision Award for her work with Safe Haven; and in 2019, Canadian Business Chicks nominated her for the Women of Inspiration Award. Yet she stresses that, at Haven’s Way™, the girls have the toughest job of all. “Once they’re here, they have to work hard to rise above their hardships. They have to build their own dreams instead of the nightmares they have lived.” Karen knowns a thing or two about nightmares. “But I don’t ever want to play the role of a victim,” she says. “I’ve had some bad things happen, but show me anyone who hasn’t had a tough life. I wouldn’t wish my childhood upon anyone, but I wouldn’t change it either. It has made me who I am. And I like me.” It’s a sticky summer day and I am video-chatting with Karen from what can only be called a dungeonesque setting. Although Karen’s side of the conversation began in a sun-filled, brick-accented, third-floor home office (a setting much more symbolic of the success she has cultivated over the years) the speed of the basement wifi is the best in the house, and so Karen has relocated to a seat beneath a labyrinth of vents and pipes downstairs. The fact that she has sacrificed good lighting for clarity of conversation strikes me as savvy, unpretentious. As she speaks, a trio of labradoodles vie for her attention. This is a make-it-work woman. Resourcefulness may just be what kept Karen alive as a sixteen-year-old with no home. After spending the first night alone in a bus shelter in downtown Winnipeg, she awoke to the chilly January daylight with an inner resolve to transcend her circumstances. “I knew by morning that I needed to figure things out on my own. I also knew I was going to be okay.” When I ask where that personal clarity came from, she shakes her head. “I wish I could pinpoint it. It was a strength I had within that I never knew I had until that night.” Voice cracking, she stops to take a breath. “I had grown up being invisible. To be very small was the safest way to be. You walk on eggshells constantly, worrying about what the next mistake is going to bring. I knew that morning that I didn’t ever have to do that again.” She was right. After that night, Karen neither returned home nor to the streets, opting to crash on the couches of supportive friends and family members—mainly her older brother, Mike, and a still-close friend named Linda. A particular dinner at Linda’s helped firm-up her resolve to stay away from her abusive childhood home: “There were seven of us, five kids and two adults, sitting around the table and laughing and talking and joking and loving,” she says, adding that, until that moment, love had been a pretty fraught concept, intrinsically linked with violence. “That dinner was one of the moments where I realized there was something out there other than what I knew.” “I wouldn’t wish my childhood upon anyone, but I wouldn’t change it either. It has made me who I am. And I like me.” Still, even with these new, positive examples of love, Karen was still part of a highly marginalized sect: the “invisible youth,” as in, young people who couch surf as a means to stay off the streets, who are homeless but do not typically present as destitute. Having a roof over your head does not necessarily mean solace, or even safety. “With couch surfers—the invisible youth—we don’t want to overstay our welcome. We don’t want to be an intrusion,” Karen says. And so come daily, nagging thoughts: where will I sleep tonight? Will I end up on the streets again? Is my situation my fault? Karen was able to keep these thoughts at bay through a combination of perseverance, tenacity, and self-belief. “I had this uncanny faith inside me that I knew I was better than what I had been told I was.” She also never allowed herself to coast. While in highschool, Karen held down multiple jobs in fast food and retail before transitioning to full-time government work—which she accepted with permission from her principal, since it required leaving school two weeks early. “I could only type twenty words a minute in a job demanded eighty,” she says. “But my bosses saw something in me.” That something was potential, promise. Also: heart. Karen earned four promotions in just six years while working for the government, often feeling in-over-her-head but undeterred. “I say I graduated with a Master’s from the School of Hard Knocks because that’s how I learned,” she laughs. “There’s that saying: life is our toughest teacher because she gives you the test before the lesson.” Ever-ambitious, Karen left the security of government work to explore the modelling industry, both behind-the-scenes and in front of the camera. Her interest in modelling lead her to discover a talent for marketing and retail, and she eventually became the National Director of Marketing for a shopping centre development company in 1988. Although Karen has largely stepped back from her career in marketing, she still provides advisory support within her husband’s company, Britgary Properties, where she is the Vice President. But a more apt title for Karen might be Full-Time Philanthropist, as she is constantly working to improve the Safe Haven Foundation and its initiatives, which, in addition to the Haven’s Way™ home, include a scholarship fund program, an alumni program for former residents, and a therapeutic recreation fund program. Karen’s work with Safe Haven has no personal monetary benefit—her role is completely volunteer—but when you’re talking about a charity that has provided a home to over eighty girls since its inception in 1996, assigning a dollar sign to the “benefits,” for Karen, doesn’t quite seem right. To Karen, “benefits” look more like last year’s Christmas: a group of 56 people—a combination of Haven’s Way™ residents, staff, and alumni—all gathered together at their community hall to celebrate the holidays. “A programming team member’s husband came up to me, put his arm around and said, ‘look at what you’ve created.’ And I said, ‘no, look at what we’ve created.’” Speaking of we. That’s precisely how Safe Haven got started: with we. During a lunch date with her now-husband—John, a man she calls her “everything”—a question came up: what did Karen wish she’d had, support-wise, growing up? A lightbulb went off. What followed was a period of frantic napkin-scribbling in which Karen and John laid the initial plans for Haven’s Way™. Afterwards, they took the napkins—tear-stained, wine-stained—to their lawyer’s office to get the process underway. “So really, all we need to do is raise three-quarters of a million dollars, buy some land, build a house, find a couple houseparents, and we’re done!,” John had said with naive, no-big-deal confidence. “I want to share my story. I want to give hope to others like me, because there are so many. The world doesn’t owe us—but we owe the world. I truly believe that.” Less than a year later, that seemingly-impossible to-do list had become a reality. The doors opened. The first girl walked in, ready to change her life. Along with her husband and the Haven’s Way™ community, Karen draws constant inspiration from her four children, three of whom are technically step-children, though Karen doesn’t distinguish them as such. “I feel it’s an honor to have four kids,” she says. “And because of how I grew up, that connotation of a step-mother just doesn’t sit well with me.” When I ask about her plans for the future, Karen says she’d like to write a book. “I want to share my story. I want to give hope to others like me, because there are so many. The world doesn’t owe us—but we owe the world. I truly believe that.” As for her immediate plans? A visit to her youngest son—Michael, 22, who is on Safe Haven’s Board of Directors—is on the horizon. Karen is giddy over the prospect of seeing her son. “The longest I’ve gone without seeing him is forty-two days!” she says with a laugh. “He’s been my greatest teacher in life, and my brightest light. I am so blessed.” Writing: Mica Lemiski
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Balance Isn’t Everything: Ballerina Tara Birtwhistle Talks Leadership, Motherhood, and the Power of a Pixie Cut
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Balance Isn’t Everything: Ballerina Tara Birtwhistle Talks Leadership, Motherhood, and the Power of a Pixie Cut
Over her twenty-year career as a professional ballet dancer, Tara Birtwhistle has seen many high-points. And while “high points” may be quite common in ballet—an art form marked by its fair share of tip-toes—Birtwhistle’s own peaks have placed her among royals. Literally. She has danced in front of Her Majesty the Queen, who awarded her with a Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002 and a Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012. She has performed alongside Julie Andrews (also royalty, if you ask me), Christopher Plummer, and opera powerhouse Andrea Bocelli. She has even won a Gemini Award—Canada’s version of an Emmy—for her stand-out performance in the film adaptation of The Magic Flute (2005). “Dance was a calling to me, but I had kind of a love-hate relationship with it because I loved rehearsing but it was hard to go onstage.” Watching her dance, those accolades aren’t hard to believe. In the CBC film Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary, Birtwhistle sails across the set on pointed toe, cutting through fog, seemingly unaffected by gravity. She is strong, feminine, a goddess in chiffon. It’s no wonder Maclean’s once named her “One of 100 Young Canadians to Watch in the New Millennium.” Birtwhistle has since retired from the stage, but as the Associate Artistic Director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet—a company she’s been with for over 30 years—her passion for dance and the RWB remains unwavering. “In the international ballet world, we’re considered one of the top-tier companies.” She adds that the RWB, which will celebrate its 80th anniversary next year, is the oldest continually running company in North America. “We’re compact, and we’ve built [our ballets] so that we can bring them on tour. We’re ambassadors of Canada.” The RWB is also a leader in women’s empowerment. “We have many women directors within our organization. Everyone communicates. Because of the atmosphere we create here, everyone moves together, in the same direction.” In other words, smooth choreography is a must. They’re dancers, after all. “In the dance world, you get to work with so many great people! Choreographers, musicians, costume designers—all of these people are part of the tapestry of who I am.” In terms of her origin story, Birtwhistle says she was “born and bred” in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. “I moved here when I was 14 years old to train with the Professional School. Then I went right into the company when I was 19.” She was promoted to soloist in 1995 and became a principal dancer in 2000. “I’ve had a huge career. I’ve travelled all over the world. [Professional dancing] is a very fulfilling career, but it’s very challenging. It’s competitive. You tackle a lot.” Helping her tackle those high barres—literal and figurative—was prima ballerina Evelyn Hart. Birtwhistle went from looking up to Hart as a student, to working directly with her as a dancer. “She really mentored me throughout my career. I was very lucky.” Birtwhistle is also very grateful to André Lewis, Artistic Director and CEO of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. “I’ve been working with him for 30 years. He has really supported me in all of my endeavors.” Birtwhistle acknowledges the difference it made, having people around who lifted her up. “I never felt like I was ‘destined’ to do things; the pathways just opened.” She adds that her daily “lifts”—those boosts of confidence from her surrounding community—enabled her to take those pathways. “In the dance world, you get to work with so many great people! Choreographers, musicians, costume designers—all of these people are part of the tapestry of who I am.” Birtwhistle’s career didn’t come without significant challenges, including a struggle with stage fright. “Dance was a calling to me, but I had kind of a love-hate relationship with it because I loved rehearsing but it was hard to go onstage.” Her simultaneous love and fear of performance led to a cognitive spiral: knowing the audience had come specifically to see her only ramped up her fear of failure, making it harder and harder to take those first, featherlike steps in front of the crowd. She became depressed. “It was a few years of not feeling good about myself.” Ever proactive, she gathered a support system of people close to her and worked with a sports psychologist. “We did a lot of meditation, and mantra meditation,” she says, and although Birtwhistle never outright conquered her stage fright (like most afflictions, stage fright is managed, not mastered) she was able to make peace with it. “Almost like once I saw the stage fright as not the enemy any more, I was able to handle it better.” “If you’re trying to be someone you’re not, that is disempowering. I feel most empowered when I am myself.” Motherhood brought challenges, too. After having her first child, Birtwhistle realized she could no longer dance at a level she found satisfying. “By this time, I was closer to 40. My body wasn’t repairing as fast.” There were mental hurdles, too. Parenting drained her energy to the point where life on stage just wasn’t an option. She decided to retire. “The saying goes that ‘a dancer dies twice’ because when you step off the stage, you lose your identity. Oftentimes, people grieve about it.” But Birtwhistle found a new way to incorporate dance into her identity: “I told my director that I was going to retire, and that I wanted to take on more artistic coaching.” Her proactive approach allowed her to plan her final performances, something that few professional dancers get to do. “Because of my choice, I felt really good about stepping off the stage. I was ready, and I felt very fulfilled.” “I want [my children] to know that they can pursue what they love to do, and you don’t have to give up everything to do that.” Birtwhistle chose the ballet The Ecstasy of Rita Joe for her farewell performance. From Alison Mayes, of the Winnipeg Free Press: “By choosing to bow out with Rita Joe, Birtwhistle is paying tribute to RWB’s long history of cultural significance. She has also chosen not to pirouette through a fairy tale, but to play a human being whose tragedy is universal. In that sense, she is leaving the stage by reminding us of ballet’s potential.” Ballet’s potential, of course, is not limited to its artistic value. As a pursuit, dancing demands tremendous work ethic, and Birtwhistle draws parallels between training as a dancer and becoming a leader. “For our Professional School, a lot of students leave home to start training. They have to be in charge of whatever they’re doing, so they can perform at their best,” she says. This early independence means that, even if dancers don’t make it professionally, they will still develop skills that other kids may not, such as self-care and ownership of their education and career. “If you can hire a ballet dancer, you should! Their work ethic is leaps and bounds ahead of everyone. Even if you’re at the top of your game, you’re constantly working at your craft.” As for Birtwhistle, her stand-out qualities aren’t limited to a fierce work ethic. She is wonderfully self-assured, curating her life according to what she likes as opposed to what’s popular. “I was always an individual. I always had short hair. I had tattoos before tattoos were a thing,” she says. Birtwhistle also hasn’t let the competitive nature of ballet mold her into an aggressive or conflict-driven person. “I don’t like competition at all! I hate it!” she says, adding that “you be you” is a mantra she’d like young dancers to internalize. “Be generous in your spirit, your physicality, your character, but remember that it’s you onstage. Every single dancer in this company has something special to add to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet,” she says, emphasizing that good things can happen when dancers choose to focus on developing their artistry as opposed to blindly chasing lead roles. “In Cinderella, for instance, I played the Wicked Stepmother. It was a 50’s theme and we kept my short hair!” Her trademark cropped ‘do set a new trend: when the Royal Winnipeg Ballet performs Cinderella these days, a short, pixie-cut wig is standard for the role—proof that individuality inspires. “I was always an individual. I always had short hair. I had tattoos before tattoos were a thing.” Since retiring from the stage, Birtwhistle has discovered a love of running. Marathons, even. Along with the community benefits and meditative aspects of the sport, Birtwhistle also loves that, unlike ballet, completing a marathon is an accomplishment that belongs solely to her and not the public. “As a dancer you always leave a bit of yourself on the stage for the audience. With running, it’s just me and the pavement.” In terms of how she “does it all”—as in, how she allocates time between work, family, and running literally hundreds of kilometres—Birtwhistle doesn’t exactly believe in “balance,” and she’s wary of falling into the mom-guilt trap. “My husband is a principal dancer with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, so we travel away from our children. For me, I don’t call it balance. I can’t give equal time to my children, and to work. It’s never quite balanced. What works for me is being ok with the imbalance.” She recognizes a give and take: sometimes she can spend more time with her children and less at work, and vice versa. “I want [my children] to know that they can pursue what they love to do, and you don’t have to give up everything to do that.” “Be generous in your spirit, your physicality, your character, but remember that it’s you onstage.” Through her life and career, Birtwhistle has gleaned empowerment through kindness, good listenership, and resistance to conformity. “If you’re trying to be someone you’re not, that is disempowering. I feel most empowered when I am myself.” Writing: Stacy McIntosh Editing: Mica Lemiski Images: Supplied
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Going for Gold: Paralympic Swimming Champion Katarina Roxon on Perseverance, Confidence, and Community
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Going for Gold: Paralympic Swimming Champion Katarina Roxon on Perseverance, Confidence, and Community
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. September 2016. Katarina Roxon emerges and walks towards the edge of the pool at the Rio Olympic Aquatics Stadium. You can barely see her face – her hood is up, swim goggles securely over her eyes – but she radiates cool and calm as she gives the crowd a wave. She unzips her long jacket and sheds the layers of clothing keeping her muscles warm, flashing the camera a big smile. A moment of total silence, and then the horn – eight women surge into the pool, impossibly fast and graceful, driven by strength, preparation, and hunger for the podium. The women’s SB8 100-metre breaststroke at the 2016 Summer Paralympics is underway. The road to Rio started in Kippens-Stephenville, a small community on the west coast of Newfoundland. “My parents thought swimming was a good life skill for me and my sister to have,” says Roxon. “At first, I absolutely hated the water. Not a fan. But over time it got to a point where they couldn’t get me out.” Roxon and her sister later joined the swim team: “It wasn’t just a team, it was a family. Everything started from there.” Her connection to Newfoundland and Labrador runs deep. She speaks proudly of her hometown as the place that accepted her wholly and pushed her past her limits to great success. “It’s a small town, so everyone grew up with me and knew who I was. They didn’t see me as the girl with one arm, they just saw me as me.” Roxon was born with her left arm missing below her elbow. “People often ask me how it feels to have one arm – well, how does it feel to have two arms?!” she says laughing. “It’s normal, just the way it is.” Although she felt comfortable in her community, “I was shy with my arm growing up,” she remembers. “I did get bullied a little bit. If I wasn’t wearing my prosthetic, I’d cover my arm up. But I always had an amazing family and great friends by my side, so I got out of that habit.” Early in her swimming career, leaving her home and support system to travel for tournaments was difficult, but her love of competing kept her motivated. “I’ve always been very determined. My mom called me pretty stubborn,” she laughs. “I sat on our porch for hours until I learned how to tie my shoelaces. I like to do things by myself – for Para athletes, we’re often dependent on someone or something, so we like that feeling of independence. And I like to prove people wrong. I think I get that from my dad. When someone says he can’t do something it’s like, ‘OK, just watch me.’” Roxon’s father eventually became her swim coach. “He’s the kind of person that likes to push people to be the best that they are,” she says. Roxon appreciates having someone to keep her on target: “There are days I don’t want to swim, like everybody else. But he sees the bigger picture, he knows where we’re going and what I need to achieve in order to get to the next step. He and my mom always told me I could do anything I wanted to do.” At 15 years old, Roxon competed in her first Paralympics in Beijing as the youngest Canadian swimmer on the team. She loved the atmosphere, the people, the pool, and her first experience in the athletes’ village: “Everyone was from different countries for different sports, but they were all there to win a medal at the games and be the best that they could be. It was inspiring to see all these Para athletes get in the water and swim their hearts out.” After placing 12th at the games, she revamped her training, making it more challenging to prepare for London 2012. “I definitely put more pressure on myself to perform well. I wanted to get on the podium so bad.” In London, she placed 5th: “For me, it was a disappointment. I knew that I had a lot more in me.” Back to the drawing board. It was a shift both physically and mentally – reflecting on London, Roxon recognizes the amount of pressure she put on herself didn’t serve her well. She learned to let go a little and enjoy herself more: “Everything started falling into place,” she says. “How I was feeling, how I was moving through the water.” In 2015, she collected six medals at the Parapan American Games in Toronto. “Having the home crowd and my family there was so exciting. I knew that I was on the right track.” Which brings us to Rio. Before the 100-metre breaststroke, she remembers feeling unusually calm. As she climbed up onto her block, “I looked over the pool and said to myself, ‘God, take care of my giants for me.’ For me, my giants weren’t my competitors, my giant was the pool. I had to conquer this 100 metres. That set the tone for me.” Diving in, she only thought of swimming – what her arms were going to do, what her legs were going to do, the position of her head. She kept her eyes closed, so she wasn’t aware of where her competitors were in relation to her. “I went for it and I knew I had to leave everything in the pool,” she says. In the final stretch of the race, Roxon jets forward. “As I was coming in, I opened my eyes, took 2 strokes, and touched the wall. It was the perfect, perfect finish. I thought, ‘I’ll take whatever the result is and I’ll be happy with that.’” She takes a beat to catch her breath and search for her time on the board, at first not quite registering the “1” next to her name. Then, suddenly, her face crumples into tears. She clinched the gold medal. “It was very emotional for me, it felt like a weight off my shoulders. I’ve never swum any race as close to perfect as that. And I was so happy for the other girls who medaled and how well they did.” Like Ellen Keane of Ireland, who received the bronze and met Roxon at the rope between their lanes for a long hug and happy-cry, the two women realizing they achieved their dream. “When I watch the race back, I can feel every single stroke,” she says. “I still have to hold my breath a little.” When Roxon finally got to the podium, she told herself she wouldn’t cry – but as soon as the national anthem began to play, she broke down. “This medal wasn’t just for me, it was for all the people who helped me get there,” she says. “My family, my friends, my teammates, my community. This one was coming back to Newfoundland and Labrador.” Roxon was met with the love and support of the entire country coming home to Canada. “It’s such a high, a roller coaster year,” says Roxon. She admits settling back into everyday life after Rio was “a little tough, mentally, physically,” but her eye is always on the prize. “Tokyo is my goal – to get there, to podium again,” she says, speaking of the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo. “I’m going to give it my all. The training will be intense for the next year and a half, but it’ll definitely be worth it.” She’s on the right track – last year, she won a gold, a silver, and a bronze medal at the 2018 Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships in Cairns, Australia. Throughout her life, Roxon has learned that true empowerment comes from within. “You need to love and accept yourself first if you want other people to be accepting of you,” she says. She uses her platform to motivate and inspire others, serving on the Provincial Council for Persons with Disabilities and as a representative for The War Amps of Canada, advocating for the power of sport, perseverance, and having big goals. Roxon’s mantra: “There’s always a way.” She conquers giants by owning and learning from her past and never giving up or settling for anything less than her full potential. “I’m living proof that it doesn’t matter where you grew up and what you do or don’t have,” says Roxon. “Anything is possible if you have determination, a support system, and dream really big.” Writing: Stephanie Chipperfield
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Taking Her Power Back: Marci Warhaft’s journey with eating disorders and fight for a healthier future
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Taking Her Power Back: Marci Warhaft’s journey with eating disorders and fight for a healthier future
In today’s modern society, we’re exposed to more misconceptions about health, fitness, and body image than ever before. Our increased reliance on the media has further perpetuated these unrealistic and often artificial standards, creating an enormous level of pressure. It seems as though every time we check our phones, turn on the TV, open a magazine, or even walk down the street, we’re ambushed by one consistent message: You’re not good enough. Marci Warhaft is fed up with the damaging effects of this negative messaging. After spending decades of her life battling an eating disorder, she decided it was time to take her power back. Now she’s on a mission to pull back the curtain on society’s biggest ruse and empower others to feel confident in their own skin. “It’s become so normal for us to speak negatively about ourselves that we don’t see it as a serious problem. Eating disorders are a HUGE problem. I lived with mine for 20 years, and it almost killed me several times.” Speaking to a group of grade 10 and 11 boys, Warhaft displayed seven photos of male bodybuilders. She asked the boys what they thought the men in the photos had in common. They suggested characteristics such as being tanned and muscular. Warhaft explained to the group, “All of these men won professional bodybuilding tournaments. And all of them are dead. They all died from what it took to look like this because what they were doing was detrimental to their health.” Body positivity is an important issue to me, so I thought I was well-versed on the subject. However, after five minutes of speaking with Warhaft, I was startled by my own ignorance. I had no idea that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses. What’s more, eating disorders do not discriminate—they affect individuals regardless of age, gender, race, or social circumstance. “It’s become so normal for us to speak negatively about ourselves that we don’t see it as a serious problem. Eating disorders are a HUGE problem. I lived with mine for 20 years, and it almost killed me several times. It killed my soul several times. And it’s insidious because it gets masked by all the diet mentality out there.” Growing up, Warhaft was very close to her older brother. When she was 17 years old, he became ill and passed away. While she was still grieving the life-changing loss, an irresponsible doctor harshly berated her about her weight. As a healthy teenager, she was told that she needed to lose 10 pounds to fit into society. Paired with the pain of losing her brother, the experience initiated a downward spiral that ultimately led to the development of her eating disorder. “I looked exactly how I thought I was supposed to. I was a mom of two, I didn’t have an ounce of fat on me, and I had all the muscle that I wanted. But physically, emotionally, spiritually – I was sicker than ever.” In articles she’s published, Warhaft has shared fitness photos from her 30s. Seeing the photos for the first time, I thought, “Wow, she looks great.” The pictures look just like what you would see if you searched ‘Fitspo’ or ‘Fitspiration’ on any social media platform. However, when Warhaft sees the photos now, they just make her sad. “[At the time], my kids were 6 and 3. We would go out to a restaurant and they would ask, ‘Mommy, are you eating today, or just watching?” At restaurants, Warhaft would either pack a container with some chicken and a baked potato or choose not to eat entirely. She nearly fainted while attending an event at her kids’ school. Seeing images of people eating or drinking on TV would make her salivate. She would wake up at 3 am to fit in time for the gym. She stopped menstruating for over a year. “I looked exactly how I thought I was supposed to. I was a mom of two, I didn’t have an ounce of fat on me, and I had all the muscle that I wanted. But physically, emotionally, spiritually – I was sicker than ever.” “[At the time], my kids were 6 and 3. We would go out to a restaurant and they would ask, ‘Mommy, are you eating today, or just watching?” Eventually, Warhaft went into recovery for her eating disorder. After she came out of recovery, she stepped back from the fitness industry to take a hard look at what she wanted, and what would be healthy for her in the long run. Now, she exercises because she loves it, and she approaches nutrition with a perspective of healthy, balanced moderation. She loves chocolate truffles and enjoys them on a regular basis. Concerned about the dangerous messages and myths around health and fitness, Warhaft started Fit vs Fiction. She speaks in schools, has done several TV appearances, and even wrote a book for parents with advice on how to help children develop healthy self-confidence. She hopes these positive, empowering messages will enable young individuals to develop into who they want to be, rather than who they think they’re supposed to be.  When I ask about ways to overcome all the negative conditioning out there, Warhaft has some powerful advice. “Social media can be very damaging, constantly bombarding us to ‘be better’. And it’s hidden—packaged in this ‘I want you to feel better, so I can give you what you need to lose weight, to have better skin, to look younger, because I care.’ It’s still saying, ‘you’re not good enough’, but the message seems so nice and it sneaks past our defences.” She advises unfollowing accounts that bring on these negative feelings of inadequacy and instead seek out accounts that celebrate things that make you feel good. She also advocates for being aware of self-talk, keeping it positive. “Focus on what makes you feel good. I dance every morning. It’s something I love and makes me feel great!” She recently moved, and having space to dance was a key factor in deciding on a new place. “It took me so long to feel comfortable just being myself. I want everyone to be able to live in the freedom of being who they are. It would be amazing to see the advancement that the world could take in every aspect – arts, science, everything! If we can live in the freedom of empowerment, the possibilities are endless.” Warhaft uses her sassy, to-the-point demeanour to correct dangerous misconceptions of health, fitness, and society’s standards of beauty. Though her life has had its ups and downs, she credits her challenges with making her the woman she is today. “Everything I’ve gone through makes me stronger. I’ve fallen a lot in my life. There have been times when I had to crawl for a while before I could get up. Now, I see it as a hole in the ground, but there’s a trampoline at the bottom. When I fall, I bounce back! I still have my spark, I still have me.” Being genuine is very important to Warhaft. She knows that no one is happy and confident every single day, and she understands that that’s okay. “Having been hurt, having struggled, I think the more real you are about it makes it easier to connect with people.” What does empowerment mean to her? “For me, it’s freedom. It took me so long to feel comfortable just being myself. I want everyone to be able to live in the freedom of being who they are. It would be amazing to see the advancement that the world could take in every aspect – arts, science, everything! If we can live in the freedom of empowerment, the possibilities are endless.” For a long time, the pressure of society’s unrealistic standards of beauty trapped Warhaft in a vicious cycle. Thankfully, she received the help she needed and realized her own courage to stand up and say, “No more.” Today, she continues to reach as many people as she can – men, women, teens, and children – using her vibrant spark to light the way to a healthier life. Writing: Stacy McIntosh Images: Supplied
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Her Story: Coping with the Loss of a Fiance
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Her Story: Coping with the Loss of a Fiance
Carla Mann had given up before her love, Chris, entered her life. In her words, this is her story of loss, love and life. Where does one begin? My life has been a bit of a “sorted affair.” A lot of loss, turmoil and just bad luck. At the age of 40, I had moved from my beloved home in High River after losing everything due to the flood in 2013. I returned to my hometown to kind of seek refuge. I’m not going to lie I had given up. I was 40, my young son 9. I had never been married, never been financially secure and I truly thought my life was over. Moving “home” was a really bad decision. There is a saying, “you can never go home again”. This in my experience is so very true. In September 2014 I reconnected with an old high school acquaintance through FaceBook. He joined because he had just become a grandfather and he wanted to follow his daughter and new grandson on social media. We became online friends and in a very short period of time, we both realized something magical was happening. By January 2015 we decided to re-introduce ourselves to one another. We hadn’t seen each other since our graduation in 1991. He arrived at my door in our hometown on January 18th, with roses in hand. He kissed me and my life changed forever. Our love grew so fast. We lived five hours apart and Chris working in coil tubing in the oilfield, spent many days away at a time. It became all part of our story. Before our second date, Chris professed his love for me and I for him. On that second date, Chris bought me a beautiful limited edition H&B necklace that I cherish. Our third date was Vegas and from there our love and devotion to each other became undeniable. We both had never been so happy. Chris had lived a sorted past as well. Struggling through life with loss, career choices, staying in a toxic relationship for nearly a decade and struggling with life’s demons. He had turned his life around a few years before we met again but told me I was all he needed. I was his drug and that what we had found and were building was better than any drug on the planet. Chris and I spent all our downtime together whether I drove to him or he came to me. He stayed the entire month of breakup with us. During that month he gifted me with many beautiful H&B pieces. Little tokens of love that I will treasure for my lifetime. My son and I moved to be with Chris before summer arrived and it remains the “first” best decision I ever made because there were many to come! “We found this magical, beautiful love.” Fast forwarding through our beautiful big love Chris and I got engaged June 3, 2017. It was an unorthodox engagement but it was perfect and we both believed all our dreams were coming true. We found this magical beautiful love where we were crazy about each other and one that was reciprocated to each other in every way. We were building a life and we were happy. Insanely truly 100% happy. Our wedding date was set February 17, 2018. Zota Beach Resort, Longboat Key Florida. We were thrilled!! Planning our big day was a labour of love. Every moment was planned right down to the tiniest detail. It was a blush and rose gold affair. My bridesmaids wearing sequined dresses and matching H&B Sparkle Balls™ that were perfect. Right down to the most insignificant flower or the colour of the napkins we were ready. We were so ready that we even discussed popping down to City Hall and getting hitched before we left for Florida. Chris saying “no one ever has to know, I just want to be married”. We should have done that, just Chris and I. Saying our vows to each other. No guests no onlookers, just us promising ourselves to each other until death do us part. But we only had one hitch to go and then we were off to Florida so we decided to wait. “We should have done that, just Chris and I. Saying our vows to each other.” Chris left for his last hitch before our wedding January 26th at 5 am, we had said our goodbyes the night before and talked about our excitement. That time home was a little stressful for both of us. Just with planning the wedding, getting payments to the vendors. It wasn’t our typical “love fest” while he was back. That Friday that he left I was driving to work and I said out loud to myself “did I love him enough these days off?” “Did I show him how in love I am with him?” I vowed right there I’d never let stress get in the way of our affection for each other again. I convinced myself that it was just what happens when you plan a wedding. I promised that moment was going to be the last time I ever had to ask myself those questions. We spoke on the phone later that night. Chris was exhausted after a long day. We ended our short conversation with our I love you’s and our excitement for his next days off and our wedding. We felt we had put everything back in our order of just loving each other with no boundaries. We were just so excited. Saturday morning, January 27th, 2018, I spent cleaning, doing laundry and packing our suitcases. When I looked at my phone when I finally sat to have a coffee it was shortly after 2pm, or 3pm in Saskatchewan where Chris was working. I felt a pang of guilt because I always messaged him as soon as I woke up. I quickly messaged him with our pet name for each other followed with hearts and kisses. Chris and I were always in constant contact. Whether it was through texting or phoning we were always in conversation. But he didn’t message back. I sent a second text saying all I had done that morning and the calls made that were finalizing the wedding details. But still nothing. “Chris and I were always in constant contact. Whether it was through texting or phoning we were always in conversation. But he didn’t message back.” Shortly after 4pm my doorbell rang. An officer stood at my door. It took him a while to tell me why he was there. I was very confused. He explained that there had been an incident, cardiac arrest and that Chris was not revived. He had passed away at approximately 3:15 pm Saskatchewan time almost exactly when I sent my messages. My entire world was shattered my heart broken into a million pieces. I never felt such complete loneliness and devastation in my life. My beautiful precious Chris was gone and I never even spoke to him that day. The days that came are a blur. I went from planning the perfect wedding to my beloved’s funeral in a matter of hours. I was so scared, so filled with fear and sadness. I spent all the time could with Chris when he arrived home. Just holding him, talking to him, playing our music and kissing him. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do, walking into a room where the man I love was so lifeless. I fell to my knees and screamed because a small part of me thought they were wrong and when the doors opened it wouldn’t be him. But it was Chris, my love, and I didn’t want him to be alone or scared so I just stayed. I found a way to get my hands under his so it felt like he was holding on so tight. I pulled up a chair and laid my head beside his. I touch every smile line and freckle. I laid as close as I could for as long as I could and no one questioned me or asked me to leave, they just let me be. I did that for days. The celebration for Chris was planned in the evening with my closest friends and family. They pulled everything together for us during the day. Chris’s daughter arrived which gave me strength and together we decided we would both offer separate eulogies. As Havyn said, we together were the two halves to his heart. She the first, I his last… “Almost five hundred people showed up on February 3, 2018 to pay their respects to my precious fiancé. Exactly two weeks to the day that we had planned our wedding.” Almost five hundred people showed up on February 3, 2018 to pay their respects to my precious fiancé. Exactly two weeks to the day that we had planned our wedding. I wanted this day to show people how I love Chris, how Havyn loves her daddy. I wanted them to feel the kind of connection we shared. This day was planned at an events Centre instead of a church. Something that really meant something to Chris. It was grand and it was beautiful. From the music to the flowers I truly believe we planned a moment in time that Chris would have been blown away by. I said my eulogy, and in it I said my vows in hopes that Chris heard me devoting my life to him. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do but I did it. Ending with words we said endlessly to each other “I Love You More Chris.” I flew to Florida a few days later. I went to our beach and I married him officially. I carried a small urn heart in my hand, filled with his ashes. I never invited anyone but when I arrived at the bridge that took me to our spot, family members were waiting for me. I had given my bridesmaids the Sparkle Balls™ Chris had picked out for them all. They sparkled in the setting sun. I walked to the water. I said my personal vows and then adding our wedding I Do’s. Then I went into the ocean and held Chris’s small urn in the water. God he talked about going in the ocean every day… I never let go. Then like magic the sunset turned blue and orange and there’s was one little star that stood out under a crooked moon smile. It was undeniable, my Husband was there. My days now are quiet. The silence somedays deafening. I am very busy honoring my love. I am starting a foundation in his name to help kids through hockey. This year in April I will be handing out 5 awards for the Chris Mann Memorial, this will take place in our hometown. I have gone back to work where by no surprise or accident I sell H&B. I am passionate about his brand and the empowerment of women behind it. I wear the numerous pieces that Chris bought me everyday. I am thankful for every single one as I truly feel close to him when I remember the excitement when they were received and the love that came with every piece. I am so so thankful for that. “I have legally changed my last name to Mann and I will carry forward being Chris’s wife. I plan on being the best of the best.” I have legally changed my last name to Mann and I will carry forward being Chris’s wife. I plan on being the best of the best. Life is very scary right now, the hurt is still so fresh and my heart is so broken. But I am empowered by the strong support of people around me and I have to be strong to do all the things I’ve planned for the man of my dreams. Chris is my sparkle. The love of my life, my husband.
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