How do the inspirers stay inspired?
We asked and they answered. These are the stories and moments of truth from just a few of the North Shore’s most inspirational people. Look around, look in the mirror, because they are everywhere.
The most important thing that you will learn from these stories is that the people sharing them did not sit around and wait for inspiration to strike. They all have found the energy in a singular moment or culmination of experiences that motivated them to take action, to own their own truth, and be the change they want to see in the world.
Inspiration can be transformational. We have all met people who we say have change our lives, or in some way ignited something inside us that just needed a little kindling to get started. Living an inspired life becomes a practice. Most of us don’t just wake up that way. It’s like good penmanship, crow pose in yoga, or making a good risotto. It takes work and it takes patience. The most inspired people still face adversity and have their mettle tested. How they handle the challenges is what other people are drawn to and look towards for inspiration in their own lives.
Inspirational people live their legacy, they don’t just leave it behind. As you step into these stories, we hope that you take this time to think about what inspires you and how you can be the spark that ignites something powerful in someone else. We know it’s in there.
Maybe She’s Born With It
How resilience and having someone to believe in her changed Sherry Blinkhorn’s life
Photos by Steve Smith, VisionFire Studios
Sherry Blinkhorn curls up into the corner of her sofa. Late winter sunshine fills the living room of her home in Lochbroom, Pictou County. She takes a sip from the glass of water that is resting on her lap and a delicate black scripted tattoo peeks out from under her sleeve. The words Goodness Prevails emanate from the inside of her forearm like a beauty mark that has been imprinted in her DNA.
There is a lot of discussion these days whether or not resilience is something that you are born with or something that is learned. Is it as black and white as nature versus nurture? Or, is it a trait that is found someplace in between what biology has given you and your learned experiences? Resilient people are a curiosity and an inspiration. Sherry is asked all the time, “How did she do it? How did she pull herself out of the turmoil of her childhood and her youth and become the person that she is today?”
She says that she owes her life to someone who took a leap of faith. Someone who looked at her and told her that she had potential when her young life was unraveling. The words were not a magic cure and it took years for her to pull herself away from a fragmented childhood but it was enough to ignite something in her that smouldered until the meaning of those words really caught fire.
Sherry was born in south west Nova Scotia near the town of Yarmouth. Her father was mostly absent during the first few years of her life and eventually died from a drug overdose in Toronto. Her mother and grandmother both struggled with mental illness. Sherry and her siblings struggled as the collateral damage. While she does not dive too deep into the details of her early years she eludes to the abuse that resulted from vulnerability of living in a house with mental illness. She shares her story with the underpinnings of forgiveness as an adult armed with the knowledge of what happened to her as a child was, to an extent, outside of the control of her mother because she was sick.
By the time Sherry was five years old she entered her first foster home. She was made a ward of the court at eight, but the perceived child protection provided little more stability. She remembers being “kidnapped” by her mother from different foster homes and the rollercoaster ride until she went into a permanent placement that should have finally given her a safe place to land. Looking back, she says that her adoptive family was just as dysfunctional and threatening. Throughout these tumultuous years, faith played a significant role in her survival. She would spend hours studying her bible and the deep feeling that there was something out there bigger than herself. But there was also something else stirring in the younger version of Sherry. She wanted to understand what made her mother sick.
“I remember being 12 years old and being at newsstands reading Psychology Today. What is interesting about my story is that I knew that this was all very peculiar behaviour but, even though I was young, I felt that there was a reason for it. I would try to learn about mental illness and educate myself. All people thought was that I had a bad mother, not that she was ill. I wanted to understand these behaviours. I didn’t know it at the time, but I think there was a mental health advocate emerging in me,” says Sherry.
Despite believing she was hard-wired to eventually succeed, there were several years where Sherry says she does not even recognize herself. While she tried to rise above the chaos and feelings of abandonment, the edges of her life continued to fray. By the time she reached her mid-teens she rebelled and fell into a vortex of depression and drug abuse. She failed grade nine twice and dropped out of high school. She clung to a bad relationship with a young man and almost married him at 17. By the time she was 21 she had been in detox four times.
In the midst of the years of destructive behaviour Sherry left her adoptive home in Shelburne and lived largely on her own. But during this time Sherry made a connection with church Pastor Bruce Parsons and his wife Sharon. They provided the first modicum of stability and Sherry credits their investment in her life as the reason why she was able to dig down and find the good pieces of herself that still remained.
“I remember the night Sharon looked at me and told me that I had potential. She had come to pick me up late at night. I was out doing something that I shouldn’t have been doing. She turned around from the front seat of her station wagon and said those three little words to me, “You have potential.” It was the first time I had someone believe in me,” says Sherry fondly remembering the woman who would be a friend for the rest of her life.
The words didn’t change her life overnight but the trajectory shifted slightly. A few years later when Sherry’s first son was born she knew that she wanted change and the impact of that night resonated with her. She didn’t want her experience to be the experience for her son. And so began a new chapter in her life.
There was a bit of a travelling road show before Sherry started to set down roots in Pictou County. A place that she says feels more like home to her than any other place she lived before. She married in her early 20s and had been working in a fish plant on Cape Sable Island in Shelburne County. She left there when she was 26 to follow her then husband to Port Hawkesbury where he was studying to become a Master Mariner. Sherry was able to get on the TAGS program that spun of the Atlantic Ground Fish Strategy to provide retaining for workers in that sector as employment dried up. She was a young mother and her marriage was falling apart. She had to make a choice about where she would attend school. Not feeling attached to the mill town she picked up stakes again and made the move to Stellarton and enrolled in the Human Services program at NSCC.
Sherry excelled in the program and graduated with honours. But while she was working on case studies in school she started to get her feet wet in the world of real estate taking over the role as superintendent for the town houses she was living in. From there she rolled right into property management for well-known businessman Joe Shannon. “I realized that I was making million-dollar deals and driving a neon,” says Sherry. “I decided that it was time that I went into real estate myself and in 1998 I got my residential license.”
While life appeared to be on track there were still dark days. She lost an infant daughter who would be turning 25 this April and there would be episodes of depression. For ten years she worked with a therapist. “There were days that I just felt like life kept punishing me over and over again. Today when I am feeling this way I just need to go back where I came from and I take comfort in knowing that I really did beat the odds.”
It’s only been in the last few years that Sherry has been able to talk about her life in any amount of detail. When she hears other people share their story she says she feels inspired to do the same.
Last year when Sherry took the stage to receive the Pictou County Chamber of Commerce Women in Business Award for 2019 she says she was completely overwhelmed by the moment and instead of delivering the prepared message she wrote on the chance the she did pick up the award she strayed into a short but powerful statement of gratitude and revealed some of the adversity of her youth.
As surprised as people from Pictou County might be to hear her story, Sherry say that it’s the people from her past that are astonished at how far she has come. Again, reaching for her humour she shares a time when someone from her home met of one her boys and when they learned who his mother was, they told him they thought that she would have either been in prison or dead.
“Five years ago my family doctor was coming to town to do a talk. When he drove into New Glasgow he saw the real estate signs with my name on them. He looked me up and he was overcome when he realized the life that I have built. These are some of the moments that keep me going. For the longest time I felt shame but know all I have to do is think about where I was or take a trip back home and I realize that I have a pretty good life.”
Knowing Sherry today it’s hard to believe there was a time in her life that she wasn’t anything other than a successful businesswoman and a compassionate gentle soul dedicated to making her community a better place. But it’s the stripes that she earned during the troubled part of her life that has given her the sagacity to stand up for what she believes in. She says that she has the reputation of being a bit of a pit bull. She prides herself in being assertive when she needs to be and she is a firm and effective negotiator. Her volunteer time dedicated to mental health advocacy and other community projects has earned her awards and praise.
“I have worked with a lot of non-profits in Pictou County over the years. I can honestly say that I have always come away a better and more empathetic person by trying to help someone in some small way. Being their voice when they can’t find it or maybe when no one else will listen,” says Sherry.
There are days when she says she doesn’t know if she works in real estate or mental health but she acknowledges that it’s something that she will continue to dedicate time to. “I have to keep doing this. I know that there is impact in focusing on these things and helping the people that need it the most.”
Sherry finds inspiration in the friends that she has made through her advocacy work. Other than her wife Julienne Doucet, she counts Starr Cunningham, CEO of the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia as one of her dearest friends and often thinks of Provincial Court Judge Tim Daley who shared his story of digging out from years of depression when he spoke at the Pictou County Wellness Centre several years ago on the same ticket as Olympian Clara Hughes.
Looking in the rear-view mirror Sherry says it’s like seeing the reflection of someone else’s life. It has only been in recent years that she has been able to free herself from the pain and shame she experienced growing up with mental illness in her family, an abusive foster care environment, and substance abuse. As she continues to peel away the layers of her life she finds more clarity in her sense of self and what she means to her family and her community. She still has days that are tough and moments when the sting of the past is very real but, more importantly, it’s the days when she meets someone on the street or receives a phone call or an email from an individual who says that she has made a difference in their life and thanks her for sharing her story that she finds her footing again.
“We all need to be the change that we see in the world,” says Sherry. “To the world you are someone but to someone you maybe the world. I always try to pay it forward and see the good in people because that’s what someone did for me. They saved my life by loving me unconditionally and believing in me.”
Sherry has collected a number of mantras over the years that she says have continued to empower and inspire her to do more but she puts all of her faith in knowing that despite all of the hardships there are in the world that, in the end, goodness prevails.