Wider Horizons

Before graduating from the Wind Turbine Technician program at Lethbridge College, Otys Potts-Little Mustache had travelled away from his home on the Piikani First Nation just a handful of times, and usually with his family. But his skill and experience working in spaces 90 metres above ground gave him the opportunity to work on sites throughout the province, country and world, taking him throughout Alberta and to Ontario, the United States and the United Kingdom. Although it was challenging for him to work far away from family and the familiar landscape of southern Alberta, Potts-LittleMustache embraced the opportunity, and when he was most homesick, an unexpected connection to home helped him persevere. Often lessons of resilience and grit seem to come in small doses, as they did for Potts-LittleMustache in his career. The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, seemed to have sped up the process for many, packing a lifetime of learning into the last 13 months. In an effort to support the community, Lethbridge College’s Learning Café offered an online course called “Thriving in Action” to students this past year – and then created a special session for staff as well. The online resource for students, created by Ryerson University in Toronto, included self-directed materials such as videos, activities and strategies to improve academic success as well as suggestions for ways to thrive in times of stress and worry. The course was also adapted for employees and aimed to teach strategies to build resilience and more effectively manage personal wellness by focusing on the key qualities of resilience — grit, optimism, gratitude, self-compassion and mindfulness. In this issue of Wider Horizons, we are proud to share the first-person stories of a student, a staff member, an instructor and a grad, all of whom have faced a variety of challenges in their lives, and all of whom have shown incredible fortitude and focus in their responses to it. The stories of Potts-LittleMustache, Jessica Quarterman, Ibrahim Turay and Tannis Chartier all show that there is no one way to respond to new situations and challenges. And they represent just a small portion of the many stories of the creative, committed ways Lethbridge College people are making a difference in the world around us, even in challenging times. If you’d like to share your story of resilience, or let us know about a classmate or colleague who has inspired you, drop us a note at WHMagazine@lethbridgecollege.ca. We’d love to hear all about it.

Jessica Quarterman

Jessica Quarterman (Communication Arts – Print Journalism 2011 and Advertising and Public Relations 2012) has worked for the college since 2016 in a variety of roles. In addition to parenting a preemie, she and her husband foster dogs. Quarterman is also an avid hula hoop practitioner and has written a children’s book.

We tread water to keep our heads above its surface. Trying to stay afloat when we’re unable touch the bottom of the pool. For over 12 months I have been treading water and my legs are tired. We were pushed into the pool of parenting a preemie without knowing how to swim. As Keith and I prepared to send off 2019, we reminisced about the best parts of the year and made peace with our regrets, looking ahead to 2020 as we were expecting our first child in April. But on December 28, 2019 I went into unexpected labour and our daughter was born three months and 17 days early, weighing one pound six ounces. We were in the pool.

Her strength and resiliency must run in the family, though, because together, we learned to swim.

She was airlifted to Foothills Medical Centre (FMC) in Calgary and I followed in an ambulance that evening. This is where we would spend the next several months in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). The FMC NICU is an intense setting. There are 35-40 babies in the unit overcoming birth complication. It’s a Level 3 NICU, where the most critical babies are held. Miracles are witnessed regularly, but so is loss.

On Jan. 1, 2020, we named our daughter Brooke - a small stream, already making her own path in life. We watched through a pane of plexiglass as she fought to stay alive. I held her for the first time at six days old, and it took a team of five medical staff to move her 1.5 feet to my chest. For weeks, her intense complications were a daily conversation with the medical team. We were told to always have our phone volume on if we left the hospital just in case we got the call to go and say goodbye. I still jump every time my phone rings. We got a crash course in medical terminology, equipment and fetal biology.

Just keep swimming, we told ourselves.

Throughout January and February, I spent 12 hours a day in the NICU with Brooke. Keith was home in Lethbridge to continue working. Things began to normalize, as much as they could, but then in March, the world I was adjusting to went into lockdown because of the pandemic.

For families in the NICU already trying not to drown, it felt like our heads were being held under. If we left the hospital, we weren’t sure we would be allowed back in. We treated each goodbye like our last – just in case.

On average, premature babies who survive can expect to be home just before or on their initial due date. Not Brooke. Something was wrong with her heart. And so, in April, we left our family of nurses, doctors and respiratory therapists for specialty cardiac care at Alberta Children’s Hospital. We spent two more months, watching her grow among tubes, wires, needles, IVs, blood tests, echocardiograms and ultrasounds. I was left wondering if we would ever get to go home.

Keith and I were also not allowed to be at the hospital at the same time; one parent per day. He would see her on weekends, and I would go home to Lethbridge. For four months we drove 880 km per weekend between the two of us, met halfway on the side of the road for a kiss and a long hug.

Finally, on July 3, 2020, we came home – after 188 days in the hospital. We learned to manage feeding tubes, monitors, oxygen equipment and nine medications. Her nursery became an extension of the hospital, but at least we were home. We continued our lockdown protocols knowing her immune system was more susceptible to illness. Keith went to work, I got groceries at specialized hours and we took her to weekly medical appointments.

But in November, somehow we contracted COVID-19. Brooke required regular round-the-clock medical care and we were also trying to overcome the crippling virus ourselves. Luckily, we have all since recovered. Brooke was on oxygen support at home, which helped to overcome the respiratory stress of the virus. Keith and I are noticing long-term effects but are grateful our sickness was relatively mild.

In this past year, Keith and I have been met with challenge after challenge that we had to face head on. We found out how strong and resilient we are. We saw that even though we haven’t seen them in over a year, the kindness and support of our friends and family could not be withheld. We long to celebrate in person with all of them whenever that is possible.

It’s now March 2021, and our girl is over a year old now. I hope she never remembers the pain of everything she endured to get here. Her strength and resiliency must run in the family, though, because together, we learned to swim.

Ibrahim Turay

Ibrahim Turay is an instructor in Lethbridge College’s School of Justice Studies, teaching classes in Management in Justice Organizations, Conflict Management, Correctional Practices, Correctional Assessment/Classification, Correctional Casework, and Counselling and Criminology. In 2017, he organized the first Black History Month (BHM) celebrations in Lethbridge College history and has continued to lead BHM celebrations each year since. He is married and has two boys. In 2018, his family visited Sierra Leone to give his children an appreciation of where he grew up.

It was 1999, when the rebels finally made it to the capital city of Freetown in my home country of Sierra Leone.

No matter what I went through, education was always my goal. I believe it can save lives.

It capped a civil war that began in the early 1990s and killed over 50,000 people. The rebels’ move into Freetown led to about two weeks of continuous killing in the city. It was horrible, but luckily this time, I wasn’t close to the fighting. As I waited for the fighting to stop, I kept a thought in my mind, “as soon as this thing settles, I want to go back to school.” My love for education kept me going.

In previous years, I'd been in the middle of three different rebel attacks. I was the only younger male in the family, and I ended up taking much responsibility as a kid growing up, making sure that everyone was okay. Today, I see I used those experiences as a training ground for me to do the things that I've been doing in my life.

I always like to mention what kept me alive, kept me safe, because people do die in those attacks. The first time, I came outside my house and a kid, probably 13 or 14 years old with a gun almost longer than he was, was heading right towards us. Suddenly, the kid heard the sound of a car from one block over and he left, which was the only thing that saved me.

The second attack was in the town of Lungi. We were there to take our diploma exams and I didn’t know the town well. I woke up very early, like 3 or 4 a.m. to study when I heard an explosion. I was staying with a close friend of mine, so we scrambled together to my uncle’s house, which was the only place in town I knew, but by the time we got there, my uncle had left. We spent the day trying to find a way out, but I didn’t know where to go and bombs were going off, so we decided to spend the night at my uncle’s house. There ended up being a few of us together and the next day we walked all the way back to my hometown – probably about 100 miles.

The third attack was in Freetown. I was with some of my family and we were hiding in a house. I remember one of my cousins telling me, “go under the table because if a bullet drops in it will have to get through all these things to get to you.” Again, something protected me.

Through all of these experiences, the thing I always looked forward to was when life would just be normal and we could go back to school.

I made it to college in Freetown in 2000. Because rebels had destroyed my hometown, I had only a small gym bag worth of belongings. One morning I woke up, and the bag was gone. Someone found my diary and brought it back to me, but the rest of my clothing was gone. My brother-in-law took me to a store he knew where people sometimes took stuff they had stolen, and there were my clothes. From then on, material possessions became much less important to me.

School, however, was incredibly important to me, and I received a lot of help. When I started college in Sierra Leone, I had relatives who sent me money for school fees and whatever I needed. I held onto it during those Freetown attacks until we could return to campus and it helped me get through college.

These experiences shaped me and might be reasons for the things I'm doing now in my life.

I came to Canada with my family in the early 2000s and continued my quest for education. I received a diploma from what was then Grant MacEwan College and did an undergrad in sociology from the University of Calgary before beginning a career in corrections.

I became interested in the lives of those I interacted with in the justice system, and curious as to why Black and Indigenous youth were overrepresented. I recognized that the experience of a Black person growing up in Canada was very different from my own upbringing in Sierra Leone, and my lived experiences would be very different had I grown up in Canada. As part of my master’s studies at the University of Alberta, I focused my research on using a Motivational Interviewing approach to work with Black Canadian youth involved in gangs.

While our experiences were very different, I can relate to their trauma and how systemic issues can affect entire communities.

I joined the Lethbridge College faculty in 2015 and carried what I learned from my 11 years of experience working in corrections, my research and my life into my instruction in the School of Justice Studies. I talk to my classes about the importance of police officers, correctional officers and other members of the justice system recognizing how their actions are perceived by those they interact with.

And I am still motivated by learning and education. I am continuing my studies by pursuing a PhD in Cultural, Social and Political Thought from the University of Lethbridge, where I am exploring Black youths’ interpretation of their interactions with and perceptions of the police in Southern Alberta.

Pursuing education gave me something to focus on from the time I was a young boy. No matter what I went through, education was always my goal. I believe it can save lives.

That is why I want to make sure others have the same opportunities I had. After I joined Lethbridge College, I began sponsoring college students in Sierra Leone because I know how much it helped me to have that financial aid when I was a student. Other faculty members in the School of Justice Studies, and the college’s LEO Club have also contributed to this cause, and so far, we have been able to send more $10,000 back to Sierra Leone to help nine students pursue college.

We have been in contact with the students we have helped, and it is gratifying to hear how it is helping them. It reminds me of my own younger days and all those who helped get me to where I am now.

My life experiences help me connect with my students in the classroom. When I hear stories from students, I say, “you know, we all grew up in different parts of the world, but your own experiences aren’t so much different from what I experienced growing up. Maybe it’s a different scale, but we all have struggles we've managed to overcome.”

And that’s the message I want them to take with them into their own lives.

Tannis Chartier

Tannis Chartier is a second-year Therapeutic Recreation - Gerontology student graduating in May. She started volunteering at the Lethbridge Soup Kitchen in spring 2020. That summer, she started a weekly program called Resilient Art YQL that encourages clients of the soup kitchen to express themselves through art. The program is currently on hiatus due to COVID-19 restrictions, but Chartier is looking forward to starting it back up again as soon as it is safe to do so.

As a soup kitchen and shelter, we do a really good job providing food, water and shelter. But I learned a lot at the college about the different types of needs and the need for purpose and meaning in your life. And I learned that recreation can be a great catalyst for that.

I think we’re building resilience and giving people some stability, purpose and something to be passionate about.

A lot of the people who come here have really been let down a lot of times in their lives, so it took a while to build a rapport with them. There was a lot of skepticism at first, but once they started coming in, they started finding they didn’t need to be great artists to take part. It’s just a space to express yourself. And then I’d notice that they would start doodling a little and realized that there actually are really good artists here. People started to show up and look forward to the sessions. I had 10 or 12 regulars who would come every week, which was wonderful to see. We’ve also had people who’d come for the program start to pitch in around the kitchen because they feel like they’re part of something, and art has helped them take that first step to feel like they can do something meaningful.

The response from the community around me has been amazing with donations of art supplies. We’ve sold some of the art on Facebook and we buy our clients the things they need with the proceeds, like medications, winter clothes and Tim Hortons gift cards. I’ve also had another organization reach out to me about finding work for some of our people because I have that relationship with them now.

I’ve had some mental health issues in my life, but I’ve been lucky to have a few good support systems to keep me from being in a situation like some of the people here who have no support, no financial resources, nothing. But for them to show up for a meal or a cup of coffee and then decide to stay and do art with me is a huge thing. I think we’re building resilience and giving people some stability, purpose and something to be passionate about.

That’s why it was so hard for me to have to put the program on hold when COVID hit because this had become something they could count on. In the meantime, we’ve been making wellness kits that include some mindfulness exercises, worksheets and colouring pages we are putting in a folder for people to take. I started my practicum in late March and I’m hoping that when that’s done, I’ll be able to go back to the program as soon as possible because this is something I really want to keep going long-term. If people would like to learn more about Resilient Art YQL, they can check out our Facebook page. And if anyone would like to order the colouring book, they can email us at resilientartyql@gmail.com.

Otys Potts-LittleMustache

I wasn’t real career-focused in high school. I grew up on a ranch near Brocket and worked with horses, and always had that part to lean on. In Grade 10, I started at a local feedlot as a summer student and kept at it. And one day, I had just had enough. It was 2005, and I remember telling my mom I was 20 years old and making good money but tired of this work already. I thought I was too old to go back to school. But she had been reading about the new wind turbine program at the college and brought it up to me, and it looked good. So, I applied and got accepted, and then I had to work on funding.

That part was a bit complicated, so I ended up providing a lot of it on my own. It made it a little tougher for me, but also made me push hard to get through it. But that choice – to return to school and train for a this job – has taken me to jobs all over the world, and it lets me come to ranching and rodeo when I can.

We have these times in life on our journey that build us, these collisions good or bad. We don’t want the hard times to happen, but they do, and they make us who we are.

The day after I graduated, I already had a job waiting for me, which was awesome. I climbed up that first day – it was a lot to take in. It was like, “I was just in school yesterday and now I’m out here!” It was hard work – sometimes it would be 30C outside and 40C inside the nacelles, but I met a lot of good guys and liked working with them.

After we finished that project, I worked in Taber and then in Ontario, near a town called Wingham. On Sundays, my day off, I’d get my gym stuff and would go running down this long road there. One day, I went to the end of the road and there was a ranch and an indoor arena. I hadn’t ridden in a few months, so I stopped in to ask if he needed help. I noticed some roan horses in his pens and got talking about them. He said they came from Alberta, and he was bidding on them against a guy named Butch LittleMustache. I told him that was my dad! Small world!

Well, he invited me in, made me tea and lunch. We got watching a documentary called Cowboys of the Americas, which my dad was in. In all of that travelling, I was really missing my family. And then right there – there was a connection from home.

I worked out in Ontario until just before Christmas and early in the new year, my boss called and said they needed some help on a project in Scotland. My grandma told me I’d never get another opportunity like that again. And I had some amazing experiences there, too. The first night we stayed in Glasgow and I remember waking up and not knowing where I was – I was so jet lagged. We would eat at these really old pubs from the 1700s, with the best fish and chips I have ever had in my life. They had these really low roofs though and I’m 6’1!

When the job was done, I flew from Glasgow to London and spent a day there touring and getting gifts for my family. I rushed home to catch my friend’s graduation and made it for that. When I came home in spring 2008, that’s when things started to change for me. Rodeo season was just starting, and it really bit me. I got home and entered the rodeo in Taber and ended up winning that one and some others after that.

By 2012, I thought I had it all, riding on Cloud 9, and then all of a sudden in 2013, the person I thought I would be with found someone else. It absolutely crushed me. But rodeo was kind of my saving grace, it helped me through that hard time, and I just kept working. I found who I was supposed to be with and now we have a new son, and I hope to compete in the Calgary Stampede one day.

We have these times in life on our journey that build us, these collisions good or bad. We don’t want the hard times to happen, but they do, and they make us who we are. These last years, I’ve gone back and forth between rodeo, riding and ranching, and wind projects. Just last week I got a call about riding horses for a new TV series being shot in Spain – and a call to also start work on a new wind project.

I don’t sugar coat this work for people. Some of it is hard– it gets pretty physical, all the climbing. It’s not an average job. But you don’t get bored. At my last job, for lunch I would take a break and walk out in the nacelle, and just sit on top in between the blades and hub 300 feet above the ground and look out to the mountains. I don’t know many jobs where you can have that kind of freedom.

Wider Horizons
Stories told to Lisa Kozleski, Jeremy Franchuk and Paul Kingsmith, Photos by Rob Olson
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