Setting An Example For Life
As Ashe Mukasa grows up, he’ll have the know-how to chase his dreams and the work ethic to achieve them. His parents will have taught him that.
by Andrea Cranfield
Helen Muleme surveyed her living room, where she was enjoying a rare, quiet moment. The air conditioner was blasting on yet another scorching hot day and, in the corner, there was a big pile of toys to be put away. When she glanced to her left, she noticed the dishes in the kitchen were piling up.
But the chores would have to wait. In just a few minutes, around 5 p.m., her husband Albert Mukasa would come home. They would have a couple of minutes to chat before he left again to pick up their 22-month-old son Ashe from daycare.
Then Helen would try to sleep before getting ready to start her 11 p.m. shift. In the morning she’d head home, but by the time she reached the house Ashe would be at daycare. Her sweet little boy with his ever-ready smile and contagious giggle? She would not get to see him.
Helen’s used to that. Sometimes she goes for two or three days without seeing her son. She never worries about how he’s doing, though. She knows Albert will take good care of him. Besides, she and Albert both know they’re doing what’s right for their future.
This past summer, as local families vacationed and lazed in the sun, Helen worked at two jobs, both day and night shifts. Now that school is in session, though, she’s back in class for her second year studying practical nursing at Algonquin College. “It’s intense,” she says of the program. However, she is determined to do well. She finished her first year with honours, at the head of her class, and she’s hoping to do the same this year.
The hours are long, the workload is heavy and Helen has made many sacrifices to attend post-secondary school as an adult. The biggest cost is time with her family. Even without the shift work, after classes end she will often stay at the library until 9 or 10 at night to study. By the time she gets home, Ashe is asleep.
She’ll tell you, at age 32, it’s not easy being back in school. But this soft-spoken woman is also strong. “It’s just what I have to do right now,” she says with a shrug.
Helen already has a bachelor of science degree in zoology from Western University in London, Ontario, and a master’s in immunology from the University of Manitoba.
She had intended to research parasites as a way to help people, but in time she became frustrated by the lack of direct results. While studying towards her master’s, an off-campus activity revealed a better way for her to make a difference: she volunteered with an HIV organization and worked with some public nurses.
Before, Helen had always thought of nurses as being overworked, underpaid and perpetually on strike. However, the nurses at this clinic were doing community work, and she saw, firsthand, the results of their efforts and advocacy.
Her face lights up as she recalls the experience and its influence: “I want to do that!” She realized, then and there, a vocational switch to nursing was in order. “I want to know that I’ve made an impact often, every day. I want to be able to see it and have that satisfaction in helping somebody,” she explains now.
Since she was about halfway through her graduate program, instead of abandoning her work she stayed put and got it finished. Meanwhile, her sister told her about a guy living in Ottawa she thought would be perfect for Helen. So after graduation, she came to Ottawa and met an intelligent, down-to-earth, family-oriented fellow named Albert Mukasa. Her sister was right; she fell for him. By September of 2010 Helen and Albert were engaged. And nursing plans were put off.
After the two got married, Helen worked at a couple of jobs doing research but she wasn’t happy. Eventually, she got fed up and decided to go back to school and make her career ambition a reality.
Albert was in a similar predicament. He was working for the government, but finding he wasn’t using his skills in logistics and procurement. Sitting down to discuss the situation, they recognized they wanted the same things: to change career paths and to have a family. Helen recalls the conversation: “I said, ‘Who knows which one is going to work? … You try and change jobs and I’ll go to school and we’ll try and have a baby.”
In her words, “Lets do all three and see what happens.” What happened? Helen got pregnant right away and was accepted into school; and Albert got a new job. “God or somebody upstairs said, ‘That’s what you want? Okay, here’s all of them,’ ” she laughs.
Although everything seemed to be falling into place, a baby on the way cancelled out any thoughts of cracking the books. Again, nursing school would have to wait. Instead, the couple embraced parenthood and welcomed a beautiful little boy who looks like his father but has his mother’s dimples. Helen stayed home to care for him.
When Ashe turned one in 2014, she reapplied for the nursing program and was accepted. Once more, Helen and Albert’s lives seemed to be right on track. Then, a month before the start of college classes, Albert lost his job.
“It was scary,” Helen admits. How could she start school with no money coming in and a baby to feed and clothe? Albert’s first reaction was to send out job applications “every single day;” Helen’s was to consider putting her education plans on hold.
She wrestled with the decision: go back to work and get money coming in the door or go back to school and hope Albert could find work. She chose school—and hope.
Clearly, Albert adores his wife. When they talk, they lean in towards each other and their eyes seem to dance. “I wanted her to go back to school, I was all for it,” he says. Still, he was scared. Concerned that if he didn’t find another job, and fast, they’d be in financial trouble. Nonetheless, they made it work. Helen went ahead to Algonquin and Albert got a job at a local grocery store to make ends meet. Sometimes, those ends didn’t meet so well, although Helen did receive two bursaries. With rent, daycare and school costs to cover, as the months went by their bank accounts dwindled.
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At times, Albert admits, he wondered how they would survive. With a single, modest income, how did they get through Helen’s first school year? Teamwork, they reveal.
He took care of Ashe, the household, and bringing in some money, while she took care of earning high marks to make all the effort count. When they thought she wouldn’t be able to continue school because the financial burden was too much, though, this young family pushed forward. Fortunately, these days things are looking up. Albert has found a good job in his field, and in just a few months Helen will graduate.
Although Ashe won’t remember all the hardships, he will, nonetheless, learn from the choices made by his mom and dad. As a parent, Helen is happy with the example she and Albert have set: “If there’s something you want to do, you go for it. However hard it is, you find a way to do it,” she declares. “If you stay where it’s safe, you’ll never know what opportunities could have been.
“Albert always says you take the information you know, you make the best decision with the information you have, and you take a risk. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t, but at least you gave it a try.”