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© 2019 by North Saskatchewan Independent Living Centre. All rights reserved.

KIRK BACKSTROM

MECHANICAL ENGINEER

In the far northwest corner of the University of Saskatchewan campus, mechanical engineer Kirk Backstrom works to design and build complex mechanical tools and machinery for various industries and sciences, for which no solution exists on the market. Bing Yan, who is also Kirk’s wife, manages operations by applying for funding, locating materials, talking with suppliers, getting quotes, and otherwise administering finances. They call the company “Kinemek” – a name that combines both kinetics (things relating to motion) and the mechanics of engineering (things that produce motion), to mean “making mechanical solutions that move and work.”

Kinemek is distinctive from other engineering design firms in that Kirk designs tools and machines in-house, but outsources all of the manufacturing. This allows Kinemek to take on larger projects than those companies who choose to manufacture their own solutions. Kirk first models physical solutions, on sophisticated LEGO pieces; and solutions, on “SolidWorks” software. Clients approve his designs before they are built, potentially saving the client time and money, and also delivering more reliable solutions.

 

Although Kirk had great success winning major competitions or honours as a student of Mechanical Engineering and as a designer, it was during his university years that he was diagnosed with learning disabilities—namely Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Dyslexia (involving difficulties learning to read or interpret letters or symbols), and Dysgraphia (involving difficulties writing coherently). Those disabilities had been wrongly assessed, when he was in elementary school, as a “failure to apply himself.” Kirk was “relieved” to discover why for years he had “often fallen behind in [his] studies, without knowing why.”

But Kirk stresses that his disability hasn’t stopped him from performing at a high level— in fact, it has enhanced his cognitive ability to manipulate shapes: “I can really wrap my mind around a problem,” he says, to create solutions that others cannot see. “I wouldn’t have my design skills if I didn’t have my disability,” he adds. So he feels even “thankful” for it. He and Bing are also thankful for NSILC! One of NSILC’s “excellent” business advisors quickly processed Kinemek’s application for a low-interest loan to cover start-up equipment- -a computer with the enhanced memory needed to run Kirk’s modelling software. NSILC’s prompt reply enabled Kirk and Bing to keep the clients they already had, and to manage the business efficiently, without having to complete onerous paperwork. Both praise NSILC for supporting them, when other not-for-profit loan providers found Kinemek ineligible.

Winning contracts with Kirk’s cognitive brilliance, operational care and the couple’s hard work, Kinemek has a bright future. Speaking about Kirk’s experience of working with a disability, Bing says, fervently: “We encourage people with disabilities to never give up . . . Work with what you’ve got and never give up.” To which Kirk adds, “because the disability [that you may have] could help you in ways you can’t imagine.” Powerful words from a mechanical design company whose cutting edge work already supports multiple industries, and will soon sustain two good livelihoods, in the process.

BRETT FRANCIS

MENTAL HEALTH ADVOCATE,

MOTIVATIONAL SPEAKER,

AND BROADCASTER

People with mental health issues often find them to be the “defining challenges” of their lives. But in the philosophy of mental health advocate Brett Francis it’s whether one responds to challenges positively or negatively that really counts. She notes that people who give up the will to work at becoming well often fall prey to self-destructive thoughts and even suicide. Yet Brett equally asserts that by reframing mental health issues as “opportunities to find strength, adapt and grow more resilient,” mental health survivors can turn their issues into “superpowers” that enable them to live very meaningful lives. Brett’s philosophy is that, with support, “survivors can lead healthy and successful lives: they are not broken and they don’t need to be fixed.”

 

Born on a farm in Herbert, SK in 1989, Brett attended elementary and high school in nearby Swift Current.  At the tender age of six, she was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome and severe Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). These challenges plagued her throughout her school years, and by the age of 17 she was re-diagnosed with both of those conditions as well as three more: Anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive (OCD) and Panic Disorders.

 

Tourette’s Syndrome, though a neurological disorder, brought with it Brett’s earliest form of mental illness, because it was (and still is) so socially stigmatized: at the age of five she developed a grunt, which turned into a yell. She then experienced multiple facial tics and other movements that she wanted to “explain away” to her classmates as mere “hiccups” or “tripping.”  

 

Since nothing was commonly known about Tourette’s in the 1990s, Brett recalls in grade two that her parents would come to her class to sit with her, trying, along with her teacher and peers, to stop her tics. She remembers being “moved to the back of class . . . . I felt like an outcast.” She observes that it is “possibly the worst feeling in the world to have someone tell you to stop something that you have absolutely zero control over.” She also vividly recalls that other school kids stigmatized her by shouting “Tourette’s” or “twitch” or even “druggy” at her, when she walked by.

 

To try to get treatment for her ADHD, anxiety, OCD and Panic Disorder, in all, Brett has seen some 20 different psychologists and seven psychiatrists, each with limited success. “I was let down by a lot of the medical profession,” she says. She tried “countless” medications, but three of which were long-term. Of those, one was prescribed in error and the other two brought terrible side effects and even worse withdrawal.

 

She tragically misunderstood her parents’ divorce when she was only five years old to men that “there was a problem with me and that I wasn’t good enough for them to stay together.”

 

But the defining challenge of these years was less the family break-up or psychiatric conditions themselves than the relentless and cruel bullying she endured for the latter, “every year of grade school.” Kids would pretend in her company to be her friends but start vicious rumours behind her back that she was an addict, long before she ever tried a street drug. They’d shove her into lockers and steal her school supplies. She recalls that “feeling like an outsider and a loner with no purpose or use, where no one accepts you, is an awful feeling.”

 

In high school in Swift Current, Brett skipped 70% of her final two years, often using alcohol or street drugs to numb her pain and anxiety. She had such low self-esteem that she developed self-cutting behaviours and even attempted suicide. Life only started to improve when her father relocated his business to Regina and took her with him to finish high school there.

 

Brett recalls “hitting rock bottom,” with two adolescent experiences: first, when she was only 15 years of age, she was set up by two childhood friends to be sexually assaulted in a locked room in her own home. Later, at age 19, she suffered a miscarriage, four months into an unplanned pregnancy, while the baby’s father abandoned her and was unfaithful. For months afterward, Brett recalls, she did little more than “lie in bed, eat and cry.”

 

Where Brett’s story becomes particularly remarkable, though, is that after months and years of feeling depressed by all of these losses, she grew sick and tired of feeling that she was a “victim,” and guilty that her addictions had caused her parents to mistrust her. At “rock bottom,” she found enough self-worth to promise to “never give up” on herself.

 

That promise has been fulfilled. Ten years later, yes, there remain some challenging days when Brett would like to “throw in the towel and swear.” But most days her life has vastly improved. At the age of 29, she now has a loving and very supportive spouse; positive relationships with her mother, based on a mutual understanding of those difficult years; as well as with her father, who was her “rock” for many of them. She also shares strong ties with extended family (for some of whom she is now a godmother). And don’t forget that she’s developed a successful career that she loves, as a mental health advocate and motivational speaker.

 

In the latter, Brett has pioneered bringing down-to-earth, stigma-busting discussions of mental illness to radio (“Not Broken Radio”) and to TV programs (“Breaking the Barriers”). She speaks professionally about mental health challenges and disabilities in the workplace and has written about her story in a bestselling book (2015). Her work has won awards and has been endorsed by the Canadian Mental Health Association and Mental Health America. Brett even has a “mental health clothing line” (“Notbrokenclothing.com”) that has helped her to spark enlightened conversations about Tourette’s Syndrome.

 

After 10 years without medication, Brett recently started working with a wonderful, “empathetic,” family doctor, who has prescribed a new medication that helps her to relieve her anxiety and insomnia.

 

Brett particularly acknowledges the influence of NSILC in supporting her, when she started her business career, prior to undertaking advocacy work. Nearly 10 years ago, when she ran a property management company, NSILC’s business counsellor taught her “how to write a business plan and how to understand the financial projections necessary to secure a loan.” Brett enthuses: “I would recommend that everybody [with disabilities] use NSILC and attend their seminars. They helped me to succeed with my first big business venture. They have a great board some of whom have their own disabilities and they are a wonderful, selfless organization.” Through NSILC, Brett has also offered two volunteer workshops for the Entrepreneurs with Disabilities Program (EDP) and participated in their video commercials.

 

When asked about her life today, Brett comments: “All of these things that have happened to me I don’t wish on my worst enemy. But they have made me the driven, resilient and strong person that I am today. I’m thankful for a lot of those experiences—not for what happened to me—but because I was able to turn those into fuel for me to become a better person later in life, to do good to others [and] to pay good karma forward.” She has turned her mental health challenges into “superpowers,” by managing them the best she can. She adds that she’s slow to judge people who happen to mistreat her or are rude, “because you never know what someone else is going through.”

 

In person, in her successful speaking gigs, through her broadcasting and book, and most especially in her family relationships, Brett Francis demonstrates this truth: survivors of mental health challenges “are not broken and they do not need to be fixed. They just need to learn how to find and manage their superpowers.”

 

KEVIN HASTINGS

GRAPHITE ARTIST

Born in Regina, Kevin recalls having a self-described “nomadic childhood” in which his summer days were spent watching birds, rodents and reptiles in a pond inMoose Jaw; and the dramatic wildlife in the Kootenay Valley.  That childhoodfurnished his mind with rich memories of nature and wildlife. But Kevin’s early adulthood did not always provide him with such a “good fit.” Diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in his twenties (ADHD), he spent years taking Ritalin, which sapped his creative energy. Drifting career-wise in the late 2000s, Kevin was advised by an Employment Counsellor at the Saskatchewan Abilities Council to visit the Northern Saskatchewan Independent Living Centre (NSILC). 

 

Kevin found valuable NSILC’s training in basic bookkeeping and the opportunities they offered to meet fellow entrepreneurs with disabilities, through events held by the Saskatoon office. Kevin observes that when most artists fail, they do so because they lack marketing skills and not artistic ability. Drawing on resources like NSILC and the advice of other, established artists, Kevin is determined not to make that mistake.

 

NSILC’s strength, he notes, was not in pushing him down any particular career path, but in helping him to “get on with a career direction,” once he had found and defined it for himself, in graphite art.

 

To view and read more about Kevin’s extraordinary graphite creations, visit www.kevin-hastings.ca or visit www.facebook.com/pages/Art-by-Kevin-Hastings.