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A unique partnership

April 20, 2012

When Michael Detheridge embarked on his MA in Learning and Technology, he knew he would need some help.

While serving as a medic with the Canadian Forces in Bosnia and Croatia, Detheridge was exposed to chemical radiation, which left his extremities extremely compromised. Simple student tasks like typing papers on the computer and walking around campus could cause damage to his tender tissue. In addition to needing help with his studies, the Calgary resident also needed a sterile place to call home while attending his residencies at Royal Roads, which is where Vicky Helmink came in.

Detheridge, who was posted in Petawawa with Helmink’s father more than two decades ago, has known her since she was a baby and is a close family friend. When the family learned that Detheridge would be in Victoria, they invited him to stay at their home. One night early in his studies, Detheridge asked Helmink, then a teenager, for some help typing out a paper. She was so keen to help she became his unofficial academic assistant.

“Vicky is a bigger part of RRU than most people know and is one amazing human being,” says Detheridge, who is now retired, but worked in the health and wellness and career planning fields. “We weren’t prepared for each other – the university or me – but we worked it out. Vicky was sort of the conductor who made it all happen. I had a wonderful experience at Royal Roads.”

For two years, Helmink, a Camosun student at the time, attended Royal Roads classes, typed notes and papers, proofed assignments and did online research with Detheridge. She also created voice commands and codes Detheridge used in developing a speech recognition program, which is now being used by a paralyzed student at the University of Toronto.

“She taught me a lot of things computer-wise and she taught me to be calm. She’s a very together person. It’s very nice to be able to have someone like that in your life,” Detheridge says. “Not only did she help me, but she helped other students with technical problems and she also helped instructors, who just fell in love with her.”

In addition to allowing Helmink to attend classes at no charge, the university gave Detheridge free access to a golf cart to get around campus and a special room for disabled students. “Royal Roads is very in tune with its students,” he says.

The work Helmink did continues to help Detheridge in the volunteer work he does to help Canadian veterans fight for their medical allowances and services.

“The voice commands Vicky helped create now assist me to write up medical reports, letters, and referrals for veterans in need,” says Detheridge, who has volunteered with veterans for 30 years in the area of health sciences. “Her volunteer activities have greatly benefitted and continue to benefit veterans, disabled students and others across Canada.”

For her volunteer work, which includes activities outside of Royal Roads, Detheridge nominated Helmink for a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, which marks the Queen’s 60 years on the throne and recognized Canadians who have made significant contributions or achievements. Helmink won the medal as did Detheridge, who was nominated by the head of Veterans Voice of Canada. Both had their medals presented by Veterans of Canada.

“I was in shock; I didn’t quite believe it,” says Helmink, who started her volunteer career as a child with the SPCA and is in the midst of preparing for this weekend’s Creatively United for the Planet festival, for which she is the volunteer co-ordinator.

“I do not know anyone else who is (or was) 23 years old and has 18 years of volunteer work behind her,” notes Detheridge, who also nominated Helmink for a House of Commons Volunteer citation, along with Royal Roads program associate Melody Andersson and Prof. Judith Blanchett. All three received the honour.

While Detheridge was fortunate to have Helmink as a volunteer, she too benefitted from the partnership and found her home as a student. Helmink, who describes Royal Roads as her “match made in heaven,” started her BA in Justice Studies the fall after Detheridge graduated. She is now looking for work in her field and is already exploring doing a master’s degree at Royal Roads.

“Vicky was a really good team player,” says Erich Schellhammer, co-program head of Justice Studies, who describes his former student as compassionate and tenacious. “For a young person to be such a good team player, that’s exceptional. She displayed maturity well beyond her years. It’s good to have her as part of our community.”

In addition to experiencing what it’s like to do a master’s degree, Helmink also learned a lot about perseverance.

“Michael had a lot of determination and it was inspiring to watch,” she says. “Even with his health issues and struggles, he managed to get through the master’s program because that’s what he really wanted to do. That was pretty inspiring to watch and I was happy to be able to help and make that possible for him.”