Other people might not consider Bronwyn Berg and Hal Bennett lucky.
Berg and Bennett would disagree.
They consider themselves lucky to be able to open an inclusive new business in a new town, providing accessible service to people who need it. They are lucky to have found each other.
And they are lucky to have once needed the same wheelchair.
Berg, 50 and Bennett, 48, both had life-changing experiences. Berg sustained a brain injury six years ago that resulted in a seizure, movement and balance disorder. Bennett underwent a kidney transplant six years ago and leg amputations a year later due to infections.
Berg had been studying creative writing at the UBC campus in Kelowna. Bennett was just out of hospital and living in Kamloops. They had each been wheelchair shopping and fell in love with the same chair. It can take a long time for a custom-fit wheelchair to arrive, so the company allowed them to share the chair as a loaner.
“My publishing career was just taking off, but I was unable to give literary readings without the loaner chair, which a mysterious guy in Kamloops got ‘stealing,’” noted Berg.
When they met for the first time, they recognized each other through the wheelchair he was “stealing.”
Bennett was instantly interested in Berg. She was interested in remaining single. They claim it took Berg four months to give him her phone number, though they talked on Facebook Messenger regularly.
“We were going through the same thing at the time, adjusting to living in a world not designed for us. It was a very bonding experience,” Berg said. “All went from there, we became best friends and then we became a couple.”
“She’s a breath of fresh air, that’s for sure,” said Bennett. “You know when you meet someone there’s more here.”
They lived together for about a year in Kelowna before coming to Chemainus to launch the Clover (as in ‘four-leaf clover,’ get it) Clothing Co. They opened the store — which also includes some new clothing — at the Chemainus Public Market on Aug. 1, securing one of the last two available market spaces.
“Who opens a store during a pandemic?” Berg queried. “We do. I definitely felt like Chemainus needed a consignment store.”
“People love to go treasure hunting so there’s a bit of that as well. We’ve been talking about doing a consignment shop for years. It wasn’t the right timing and I was basically housebound for five years.”
They stumbled upon the opportunity almost by accident, driving around Vancouver Island and being impressed by the accessibility of Chemainus.
“Why are there ramps everywhere?” Berg said with delight. “We felt like we were in Disneyland. Aside from a few stores, everything’s accessible.”
And there’s also the aspect of turning up something special for shoppers.
“A lot of disabled people struggle financially,” Berg indicated. “And yet many consignment stores aren’t wheelchair accessible. We are passionate about accessibility. We wouldn’t do it unless we could have a location that was inclusive to everyone. The Chemainus Public Market was a unique opportunity. They already had a flat entrance, automatic door openers and an accessible bathroom. All that we added was a wheelchair accessible change room.
They’ve been through a lot, but finding each other has helped endure the difficult days and prepare them for this new chapter.
“It was very life-altering,” Berg said of her injury. “There’s lots of grieving that needs to be done, but then you get to a point of acceptance. People see the wheelchair and feel sad. I’m not the least bit sad about the wheelchair. Before I had the wheelchair I was crawling around and gripping walls.
“I’m definitely a survivor,” she added. “Hal and I don’t feel bad about our lives. We definitely have challenges. I can’t work every day and had to give up my academic pursuits and career as a writer.”
“We’re extremely lucky to have found each other. It can be a very isolating life. To go through disability with a partner is amazing. Our disabilities are different. We’re able to care for each other without it ever being a burden. We never treat each other like we’re a burden.”
Bennett was a Type 1 diabetic from the age of three. Complications from the diabetes eventually killed his kidneys. He went on dialysis 11 years ago and eventually had the transplant. The amputations of his legs below both knees were required five years ago.
He still uses a wheelchair as well, but the incredible improvements made over the years can be seen in his prosthetics, with ease of movement and different components used in their construction like carbon fibre.
“My attitude tends to be fairly productive,” he said. “I hate the word ‘positive.’ I like to see the wonder in things and live for the moment. If I’m not at the store, I’m on the slopes.”
“We feel lucky to have found a town that has been so accessible, a business where we can offer an inclusive experience,” Berg said. “And we’re lucky to have found each other.”
For more news from Vancouver Island and beyond delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.