Ask her today, and she’d say a flexible career that puts her skill and passion to work is all she wants. But, if you had asked Caitlin Heinloo about her future 10 years ago, her answer might have been different.
Heinloo, a Writing and Publishing Diploma student whose hard work earned her a spot on the Okanagan College dean’s list, finished her first year of studies in the spring. And, after a long-term disability and general anxiety disorder halted her career progress more than a decade ago, making the dean’s list is only the crown on top of her momentous achievement.
“I worked really hard in high school to the point I burnt myself out. I was accepted to the University of British Columbia Okanagan with a scholarship but deferred for a year after graduation,” says Heinloo. “I wanted to have a year off to live my life before going into a university career.”
During her gap year, Heinloo began feeling unwell and knew something was wrong. She had ulcerative colitis — an inflammatory bowel disease that causes painful ulcers to form in the lining of the large intestine.
“I feel very lucky that I did defer. I would not have been able to continue with my schoolwork at that time,” says Heinloo.
She spent her gap year focused on work until her illness made it difficult to hold down a job. As a fresh graduate ready to make her mark on the world, she made the difficult decision to move back home with her parents as she struggled to find employment.
She went on disability with the Ministry of Social Development and spent years looking for work that would accommodate her disability.
“I knew it was time to get help,” says Heinloo.
Crossing the bridge to employment
Eventually, Heinloo reached out to WorkBC for support in planning for her future.
“Caitlin experienced significant health challenges that had her start from zero,” says Hallie Webster, Heinloo’s case manager at WorkBC. “She was somebody who didn’t know what she could do, but she persevered and had faith in the process. Her growth has been incredible to see.”
In 2015, Heinloo enrolled in the Bridges Program that helped women gain the skills required to return to work. For three months, Heinloo attended weekly programs with homework and reading assignments.
“I had a lot of anxiety about going back to work. Bridges helped me to realize I do have skills that could be applied to work and that I would be a good employee despite my limitations,” says Heinloo. “It was an absolutely incredible experience that I believe truly helped me rewire my brain. Now I know I can do something if I set my mind to it.”
After Bridges and with the support of Webster and WorkBC, Heinloo re-entered the workforce with a three-year stint at Tea Desires before transitioning to a position at Secret Origins.
There, in the Village Green Mall, Heinloo became reconnected with her creativity. She spent her days creating custom t-shirts for clients based on anime and comics. She learned new tools in the Adobe Creative Suite and found a passion for design. And she still remembers her customers.
“I had a client bring in a t-shirt her husband loved from his childhood. It was torn to bits and full of holes. She wanted to know if there was any way to save the design and print it on a new t-shirt,” Heinloo recalls.
So, Heinloo learned everything she could in Photoshop to recreate the graphic and give the customer a t-shirt she and her husband will always remember.
“She just gets into the work she’s doing. It really matters to her that she’s doing outstanding work all the time,” says Webster.
Creating her own path
Inspired by her time creating custom t-shirts, Heinloo worked with WorkBC to find a suitable career path and secured funding to return to Okanagan College as a full-time student in 2020.
“I had a hard time in high school trying to decide on a career path. I have too many hobbies — sewing, drawing, painting, writing,” Heinloo says. “Writing has the potential to give me a career, a path to do more. But I’m not trying to hold to a certain picture of what the future after school will look like. I’m going to adjust with time.”
As she prepares for her return to in-person lessons in the fall, Heinloo is thankful for the support of WorkBC and her community.
“We could all use a little help or boost sometimes,” Heinloo says. “I had an excellent support system alongside WorkBC. Friends and family gave me rides to meetings. I had a lot of time to work on myself because of that support system.”
Beyond her new love of Earl Grey tea, Webster says she’s learned a lot from Heinloo over their years together.
“I’ve learned about being patient with yourself. Sometimes you take one step forward and two back, but you put up with the disappointments,” says Webster. “Caitlin has taught me to just keep going when things are hard. And, if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you’ll get there.”
If you are looking for job search assistance, Skills Training and more contact the WorkBC Centre in Vernon at 250-545-2215 ext. 230 or visit workbccentre-vernon.ca for more information.