Vicky Helmink

Young scribe enabled disabled vet to attain his master’s degree

Exposure to chemical radiation during his service with the Canadian Forces in Bosnia and Croatia left his hands burning from the inside out

Michael Detheridge felt overwhelmed when he began work on his master’s degree in learning and technology at Royal Roads University.

Exposure to chemical radiation during his service as a medic with the Canadian Forces in Bosnia and Croatia have left his hands, feet, arms and legs burning from the inside out for the last 16 years. Activities as gentle as clicking at keyboard keys can result in painful damage to Detheridge’s tender tissue.

“To do a master’s is not an easy thing,” said Detheridge, who completed the majority of his studies online. “I started in the military with (a Grade 9 education). … To get to the master’s level and not be able to use your hands to write and type – it’s a lot.”

The seemingly impossible task was made possible by Vicky Helmink, a 2006 grad of Spectrum Community School who was Detheridge’s scribe, researcher and editor throughout the 49-year-old’s stint at Royal Roads. Helmink began working with Detheridge, who lives in Calgary, when he stayed with her family to attend courses. She continued her volunteer support while working part-time and attaining a B.A. in justice studies.

On March 26, Helmink became one of the first Canadians to receive the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubliee Medal, an award given to those who have made significant contributions or achievements. The award, which also marks the Queen’s 60th year on the throne, will eventually be given to 60,000 Canadians.

“I didn’t really believe it at first,” Helmink said. “I was like ‘No way, I’m only 23. That’s not possible.’”

From 2007 to 2009, while Helmink was 18 through 20, she typed notes, edited documents and created voice commands and codes Detheridge used in the development of a speech recognition program. Computer savvy Helmink also became the unofficial tech support to the entire class, as well as a bit of an assistant in setting up quizzes and participating in group activities.

“Even the university was overwhelmed at times to have me,” said Detheridge. “They recognized right away that Vicky was a huge resource not just to me, but to the whole program. The whole class benefitted from Vicky Helmink being in it.”

Though the experience often left Helmink feeling spread thin, it also taught her to stay calm, prioritize and multi-task, she said.

“She was up to two, three, four o’clock in the morning lots and lots and lots of nights and then struggling to do her own work in between Mike’s,” added Helmink’s “extremely proud” mother, Christine Knox.

Helmink has followed in her family’s long-standing tradition of volunteer endeavours since helping out with the B.C. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as a young child. Detheridge, who nominated Helmink for the award, also submitted a successful application for Helmink’s House of Commons Volunteer citation.

“She’s wonderful to deal with. She’s very positive – one of the most positive people I’ve ever met, especially for a young person,” Detheridge said. “She’s a very humble individual. I wish there were more people like her.”

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