It started with a gift – a small donut box filled with baby chicks. Gina had been on the couch, despondent and feeling like she had lost her identity. An accident as a firefighter had left Gina with a permanent disability. She needed a diversion, something new that could pull her out of her brokenness. As she opened the box, she recalls, her husband said, “You always wanted a farm, so here are your chickens”. This gift would force Gina off the couch and outside. She started feeling better and found a new way of life that gave her purpose. Over the years, Gina’s backyard has morphed into “Sweet Ass Farms and Donkey Sanctuary”, a non-profit family farm with a menagerie of (formerly) broken and adopted animals. One small gift became the fountainhead of healing for not only Gina and her family, but for her whole community.
“I do brokenness well,” Gina says with a laugh, her wit balanced on that razor-sharp edge between humour and heartbreak. She introduces me to her adopted dogs, all three of whom were given up for their flaws – but it is their flaws that endear them to Gina.
Gina used to be a fire-fighter, full of energy and giving in the most noble ways – that is, risking her life to save others. But that fateful call out one night, which led to a series of missteps and miscommunication at the fire scene, cost her dearly. Gina’s right foot and ankle got lodged in the retractable area ladder that crushed her lower leg. Eventually, the injury would result in an amputation.
“I lost my old life,” Gina says, but she created a new one. She is a good problem solver and knows she can always fix anything. It’s easy to see that, at her core, Gina is a giver – something she’s done all her life.
During our interview, Gina’s playfulness with the way she describes her life and the humour she shares with her son is endearing. It reminds me that happiness in life exists in the little things we share, and the imperfect nature of human relationships. Returning to a different way of doing something, especially after a mobility loss, can be hard. Sometimes you need a special gift, from someone who loves you, to change how you see the world.
How would your kids describe you?
I have 4 kids: a 12-year-old, a 13-year-old, a 16-year-old, and then my oldest is 28. The younger three grew up not really knowing what I was like before my accident. They don’t see me as disabled – not one bit. I have to remind them on a regular basis that I can’t do everything. They say, “why can’t you do it?”, and I say, “because I have one leg and I’m tired, that’s why!” The younger ones don’t get it. My 16-year-old, who was six or seven when the accident happened, didn’t want me ever leaving the house, let alone going back to work. I had a traumatic injury as a firefighter, and he was worried every time I left the house that something was going to happen. I have challenges, but in their minds, I have no problems, I’m not disabled, there’s no mobility challenges whatsoever. I’m just like everyone else… which is, I guess, a blessing and a curse! (laughs) The blessing part is that they don’t treat me differently. They don’t treat any disabled person differently for that matter.
My 16-year-old started doing side jobs for a gentleman with ALS about four years ago. I think watching that man deteriorate made my son take a look at how you age with a disability. Now, he’ll say things like, “It’s going to be below 0 degrees for the next three days, so maybe we should work in the garage a week early, because I know you’re going to have a hard time when it’s that cold”. He has the foresight to plan ahead a little bit, which is growth.
As I age, my body is aging differently, so things that wouldn’t bother me before – or things that I could alter or adapt to later – now bother me. I’m running out of ways to adapt to fit that aging body. You have to get creative!
What are your passions in life?
That’s a hard one. I don’t have a specific passion – whatever it is that I’m passionate about at the moment is my everything. It’s all encompassing; I can’t just do something a little bit. That drives a lot of people crazy! I can’t just scrape paint and then put on a new coat – I might have to replace the whole board, or put on a new roof, and the next thing you know, you’re building a whole new house because you had flaking paint! That’s exaggerating, but you get the gist.
Since 2010, I would say my passion has been animals. When I lost my job, and had to stop volunteering, I lost my whole lifestyle and the friends that came with it. As that was happening, I was losing my identity, and didn’t know what to do. My husband came home from work one day with what looked like a Dunkin Donuts box in his hand, and inside were baby chicks. I was still taking pain medication, not showering regularly… I was clinically depressed, and not taking care of myself well. He said “you’ve always wanted a farm, so here’s some chicks – go raise some chickens!” I was like “are you crazy? Do you see me here laying on the couch with my pills and equipment? I can barely function enough to get through the day and you want me to take care of chickens? What’s wrong with you?!” And he said “I vowed, when we got married, for better or worse, in sickness and in health. I’m supportive of whatever you want to do, but this pity party is not cutting it. You have to get up and find your life again”. I said “fine, I’ll get your dumb chickens and go outside and figure it out”.
Well, I loved taking care of the chickens! We built this big elaborate coops, then I had to make them an out pen. Then I had to make them little exercise equipment. Then we had to get ducks because I thought that would be neat, and the ducks needed a pond. Then we had to get a filtration system for the pond. Then we wound up getting goats because we had some land I wanted to get cleared and I loved having goats. Then the goats needed a protector because I didn’t want them to be out there with the coyotes by themselves, so we got a horse. Then the horse needed a buddy so we wound up getting a donkey. Then the horse unfortunately passed away so we needed another donkey so the first donkey wasn’t by himself, and we wound up rescuing four other donkeys, one of which was pregnant! Long story short, we have a menagerie of animals on a farm all because I had to find something to do with myself.
We have three rescue dogs, and they all come with their own brokenness. I do brokenness, and I’m pleased to embrace the animals that came to us after being neglected and mistreated. I didn’t know a thing about donkeys, goats, or chickens; you just kind of learn as you go!
In 2017, it became a bit financially challenging, so I created a 501c, which is a non-profit organization (which was doing great up until COVID hit). We’re in two categories: agriculture and animal welfare – three if you count education. I have a teaching degree, so we try to educate through classes and public events at day camps, churches, public schools, and even child care centres. If anybody wants to check it out, it’s called Sweet Ass Farm Donkey Sanctuary, Incorporated.
What brings you confidence?
I don’t know! There aren’t many times that I have a problem that I can’t figure out. I might not be able to figure it out quickly, which causes me a lot of frustration, but nine times out of 10 I’m a pretty good problem solver. I mean, almost everything is fixable.
I’m also very blessed that my husband is a like-minded guy. We are two peas in a pod. He’s much more low-key, and I’m a high-strung Type A, but we’re both analytical, logistical thinkers and mechanically minded. We feed off each other all the time. We always say that we could go to bed with a problem in our heads, and I’d wake him up at 2am with something, and he’d wake me up at 4am with something, and then by 9 o’clock in the morning, we’d have a solution! People think that’s ridiculous, but that’s our connection. I’m very fortunate. He’s probably half my confidence.
What brings you courage?
I don’t look at it like courage – I just look at it like you don’t have a choice, if that makes sense. I feel like I’m going to do this, and I’m going to be proud of myself, and I’ve got this. My therapist has been working for years on these things! (laughs) I had a rather hard childhood. I was the oldest in my family so I had to care for a younger sibling because my parents unfortunately had some dysfunction and addiction issues. I think my past life experiences leading up to my disability set me up for a good outcome, if that makes sense. I think that whatever I have, whether I’m courageous or confident, it was something that I learned a long time ago and just served me well with challenges I’ve had later in life.
What’s something you’ve learned that has defined your life moving forward?
I have a hard time letting go. My more religious church-going friends say ‘give it up to God” – there’s just certain things you can’t control. You have to learn to see what you can control, what you can’t control, and then find a happy medium. You have to pick and choose your battles when it comes to control issues. It’s an ongoing struggle, but as I get older, I think I’m learning to tolerate it better. I guess I don’t waste my energy on things I know I can’t change alone. I have to save what’s left in my bucket for me. Not that I don’t want to share what’s in my bucket with other people, but self-preservation is something I’m very aware of. I have to put me first, which is not necessarily saying I don’t care about others, but I have to look at things differently because at the end of the day, I only have so much left, and tomorrow I have to wake up and do it all over again.
What’s your idea of a perfect day?
It’s very hard to find a perfect day, because you don’t always go a perfect way. My husband and I have this saying: “As long as nothing blows up, blows out, or blows off, we’re good”. If I got through the day feeling no worse for wear, there was no animosity, I can hit my head on the pillow at the end of the day and think, “I did good today”, and not have any doubts.
What does ‘defy convention’ mean to you?
Adapt! ‘Defy convention’ so obviously means overcoming, you know? Resisting, finding your own… Convention is tradition, as in “we’ve always done it that way and that’s how we’re going to continue doing it”. Adaptability is key. I think that’s why I was able to do so well as a differently-abled person – because I was adapting before I had to. I’ve been an adapter my whole life, so this was just one more problem that I had to fix.
I co-run an amputee support group, and we talk about adaptability and having to deal with the changes that you’re facing. The world is not going to adapt. Should it adapt? Yes, but realistically, it’s not going to, and it can’t feasibly adapt to everybody, because not everyone has the same level of needs. People can come up with a ballpark to try to accommodate the majority of people that are disabled, but it’s not going to fix everybody, so you have to adapt. Adaptability isn’t going to be the same for everybody. Adaptability is unique to you – there’s no one way adaptability looks, or should feel.
What’s your favourite thing about SideStix?
The durability and the shocks. I’m a bit of a germaphobe, so my SideStix are purely for outdoors, and I use a really cheap pair indoors. They’re good for getting you from your bed to the bathroom, and some people only need that. For people who are looking to live, rather than just exist, and want to take hikes and climb, and take their crutches to the beach, or walk around a farm, a crutch with a shock makes a huge difference. You feel it everywhere. If you live in crutches, you need SideStix.
Do you have a message for other crutch users?
If you’re experiencing discomfort of any kind, look at the variables that could be causing the discomfort. To the best of your ability, try to isolate the variables – if you think it’s uneven surfaces, or a pair of shoes, or your prosthetic, or you’re just doing too much. Isolate them to check them, one at a time, to rule them out. Until you isolate them, you won’t know, and you’re just going to chalk it up to be anything. If something doesn’t feel right, maybe it’s not right.
And do these checks for your whole body! As a person who’s already missing a leg, I don’t have to tell you that if your hands don’t work, there are only so many limbs that can facilitate you!
[Gina’s son speaks off-camera, and she laughs]
My son said if I was a torso, he’d drag me around in a Radio Flyer wagon! (laughs)
If you could have a single word tattooed on your body, what would that be?
Actually, it’s probably a word that I do have tattooed on my body! ‘Give’. Not in a sense that you should give to somebody else – I want to be clear. Just in general, give yourself. Give everything, give your hardest, give your all, give.
I have a tattoo on my stump of all things. I have quite a few tattoos, but the tattoo on my stump is a tattoo of a stump. It’s supposed to be funny. It’s the stump from “The Giving Tree”, by Shel Silverstein. It’s a book about a tree that gave itself in many forms over many courses of its life, ultimately to just be a stump, and even when it was just a stump, it was giving – it was a place for the boy to sit when he was an old man. Through that tree’s whole life, it gave in one capacity or another.
When I wound up losing my leg, I needed a funny pun for one more tattoo, because what’s one more tattoo when you have a bunch? I thought the Giving Tree was perfect. There’s plenty of times when I’m not wearing my leg and people stare – and if they’re going to stare, they’re going to see my tattoo. It says “And the tree was happy”, and then underneath it just says “give”. If there’s a word I could say to everybody, it would be “give”; give of yourself, give to others, but not too much… just give.