Triumphing over tragedy: Early Childhood Education grad draws spiritual support from late husband

Olga Rusnak, Makoonsag Intergenerational Children's CentreIt’s never too late to follow your dreams. And if you think that’s just a silly cliché, you really ought to meet Olga Rusnak.

If you had asked Rusnak 10 years ago if she thought she’d ever graduate from Red River College and land her current job as a daycare provider at the Makoonsag Intergenerational Children’s Centre, she would have answered with a definitive ‘no.’

“I’ve always wanted to work with children, but I didn’t have the education for that,” says Rusnak, 56, who recently proved dreams can be realized at any age.

The second-oldest of six children, Rusnak came from a poor family, and dropped out of school in Grade 9 to help her mother care for her siblings. She worked in retail for many years to provide financial support for her family — and she’s proud to say four of her siblings went on to graduate from high school.

But once she reached her late forties, Rusnak herself felt stuck.

“As you get older, you think, ‘I wish I had my education.’ I used to think, ‘If I could only have this job …’, but you need an education. You can’t get anywhere without an education.”

Rusnak told her husband, Daryl (John) Rusnak, how badly she wanted an education so she could fulfill her dreams of working with children. He offered nothing but support.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you go back to school?’ And I said, ‘No, I can’t. I’m too old, and I’m afraid.’”

Thankfully, John’s persistence paid off, and Rusnak eventually went to Urban Circle Training Centre Inc., which provides culturally appropriate education and training to Indigenous women and men in Winnipeg. There, she received the support she needed to graduate from the Centre’s high school equivalency program in 2009.

Sadly, while Rusnak was attending Urban Circle, John was diagnosed with cancer.

“He wanted me to finish my school,” says Rusnak. “That was the hardest thing I could have ever done.”

Rusnak took her schoolwork to the hospital so she could study by her husband’s side as he received chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She went on to earn her Education Assistant certificate from Urban Circle in 2012, but not long after that, John passed away.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do after that,” Rusnak says through tears. “I was just totally lost. But I just kept remembering his words. He said, ‘Keep on going.’ He wanted me to have a future.

“Then I had this opportunity to go to Red River College and get my Early Childhood Education diploma, and I said, ‘Yes, I can do it.’ So there again, I was scared, but I did it.”

Olga Rusnak, Makoonsag Intergenerational Children's CentreIn 2015, Rusnak enrolled in the workplace version of the Early Childhood Education (ECE) program at the Notre Dame Campus, which allowed her to work at Makoonsag — a daycare for children of Urban Circle students — Monday through Wednesday, while going to RRC on Thursday and Friday.

And she wasn’t without a support system. Rusnak’s instructors and classmates, as well as RRC’s Indigenous Student Support Centre, picked up right where John had left off.

“You’ve got all the support you need (at RRC),” she says. “There are a lot of instructors there that really give you the boost, the confidence, the encouragement that you need. They have your back. And that’s what got me going. I’ll always remember them. I don’t mean to sound corny, but I’m just so grateful.”

Of the countless career skill sets Rusnak developed while in the ECE program, she counts social interaction as the most valuable. As a caregiver, she helps children develop their own social skills — but also provides guidance to their parents, who are often following a path similar to her own.

“We’re in the North End, and I can see some of these parents, how they struggle,” she says. “They’re going to school and their children are coming here and sometimes you can see the stress. I’ve been through it, and I’m right there for them, telling them, ‘I did it, and you can too!’ A lot of people need that confidence.”

Rusnak has been working fulltime at Makoonsag since completing the ECE program in June of this year. Well, June 16, to be exact.

It was a Friday, and on the following day, she visited her husband’s gravesite to tell him the good news.

“I said, ‘I did it, Hon. I did it.’”

— Profile by Lindsey Ward (Creative Communications, 2004)