CHURCHILL FALLS, NL
– If you were a single parent with three children below the age of 10, had no money, moved to a town where you didn’t know anyone, and had nowhere to live, what would you do?
Giving up might come to mind for some people, while for most, this would be a situation in the movies that wouldn’t require a response or second thought.
But for Kirstie LePatourel, it was very much her reality, and for the sake of her family’s survival, she had to do something.
Originally from Vancouver Island, British Columbia (BC), Kirstie came to Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) approximately seven years ago and lived in St. John’s. She was a Chemical Process Engineering student at College of the North Atlantic (CNA), who also served on its Board of Governors as a student representative. She was a semester away from completing her diploma; however, a failed marriage meant that she knew she had to move far enough away to start a new life, yet stay within the province.
With her children in tow, their clothing, and money she gained from selling tickets she had won in a Halloween contest, she packed her car and drove from St. John’s to Labrador City.
“I had nothing,” Kirstie said through nervous laughter in a telephone interview. “No money. I used my last $20 on gas to get us from Churchill Falls to Lab City. No food. Nowhere to live. I had the kids, and I knew had to do something.”
For the next five months, Kirstie’s future, along with that of her two sons and a daughter, existed within the walls of a women’s shelter. The timespan permitting them to stay in the shelter expired, and Kirstie was able to get a place to live through the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation. Her priority was to make sure her children went to school and had food in their bellies, even at the sacrifice of her own well-being.
“There were times I just wanted to quit. But I have good kids – I am very lucky. They have also sacrificed a lot along the way. They are athletic, and I had to say no a lot, but they understood why. I needed to focus on a goal, and I wanted a career – something to build toward stability in their lives.”
She decided to return to school. She wasn’t able to complete her program in Labrador City because it wasn’t offered at that campus, but she found out that the Practical Nursing program was again available in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Kirstie was determined to follow what she knew would be her life’s calling. However, by switching programs, she lost her entrance bursary, and to top it off, she wasn’t eligible for funding to attend CNA.
“I went to the teachers and I told them I had no money, and this meant I wouldn’t be able to buy books or anything for the program. So I got hold of books on loan.”
But that wasn’t the only stumbling block in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Kirstie’s children are Francophone, and if she wanted them to continue their studies, she would lose her day care subsidy unless she enrolled them in the English school.
“Once the French school found out about this, they created a program so my kids could attend,” Kirstie said, expressing her gratitude that it was at no cost.
She eventually applied and got a job as a residence assistant (RA), which allowed her the opportunity to move her kids into one of the family apartments at the Happy Valley-Goose Bay campus. There were no extras with this job, but they had a roof over their heads. In her first year of studies, she won a CNA scholarship and she also worked at the campus library. This money was primarily used to buy food.
“It wasn’t easy to find connections, like where to go for the food bank or any help. There were other parents who needed help while studying, so I formed a co-op parent group for babysitting. We relied on each other to help with our children so that they could study because there was no money. I passed this on to the other RA so that the service could continue. We also wanted our kids to stay active. So we would use the CNA gym on the weekends so they could have gym time and play sports, especially during the winter.”
For when times became difficult for herself and her children, Kirstie placed the inspirational saying – “If you can dream it, you can achieve it” – throughout the apartment in stencil art.
“It reminded us when times were tough that we were going to get through it.”
Fast forward to spring 2017, Kirstie completed the Practical Nursing program; however, in spite of being top in her class, she wasn’t able to attend the graduation ceremony because she needed to work. As part of a two-year commitment, Kirstie works full-time at the Churchill Falls Community Clinic with Labrador Grenfell Health. The bursary money helped pay her tuition.
Then she received notification that she would be the recipient of the Governor General Academic Award to be presented by Lieutenant-Governor the Honourable Frank F. Fagan at Government House in St. John’s. She wasn’t going to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. On September 25, Kirstie’s name was announced, along with 13 others from CNA, to receive recognition for graduating with the highest grade point average from a Canadian college program. It is one of the most prestigious awards a student can receive while attending a Canadian post-secondary educational institution.
“It was just surreal, and a little overwhelming,” Kirstie said, while reflecting on the journey that got her family (her children are now aged 12, 10 and seven) to this point. “But I know this is my calling, and my kids will also have a better future.”
College of the North Atlantic