Breaking down barriers


Gene Crook displays a drawing of a character he created, John Doe.
— Myles Dolphin/NNSL photo

Gene Crook has been overcoming obstacles all his life.That’s why when he talks about the one he’s currently facing, his voice doesn’t drop or weaken. He’s upbeat, confident and excited about the opportunity that is within his reach.

Crook dreams of becoming a 2-D animator someday and wants to work for a movie production studio, creating his own characters and watching them come to life on the big screen.

As an adult with a learning disability, his academic options are restricted. His limited education means that many bigger, more prestigious schools won’t look at his drawing portfolio, although he is clearly talented.

A short stint at the Art Institute of Vancouver last year proved too overwhelming for the Hay Riverite, who had been admitted as a ‘mature adult’ based on his lack of Grade 12.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t cope with the daunting course load and extensive homework.

It was too much, more than I could handle,” he said.

After six months in B.C., he came home to start over. Now, with the help of his parents, he’s saving up to head back to Vancouver and conquer the beast that once slayed him, not unlike a scene in one of his carnage-filled drawings.

While in Vancouver, Crook visited VanArts (the Vancouver Institute of Media Arts), a smaller and more intimate school where one-to-one interactions between teachers and students are a lot more likely.

Last year, we were promised there would only be 10 students per class, but it was closer to 15-20 instead,” he said. “We used Maya (a numbers-based, 3-D animation software), which was too hard for me to use.”

The good news is that VanArts has already expressed an interest in Crook, having seen his portfolio of drawings and responding with positive feedback. They understand his academic past, and also his current financial situation.

We calculated that it would cost $45,000 for Gene to go to school in Vancouver,” his mother, Lillian Crook, said, taking into account tuition fees, rent and other expenses.

Student financial assistance can provide $1,900 per semester and $700 per month for living expenses, plus $400 for books. We’re waiting to hear from ASETS (Aboriginal Skills and Employment Training Strategy) to see how much they can give us, but we will probably have to end up borrowing a lot of money.”

It’s a Catch-22 situation for us because the school has already expressed an interest in having Gene and we’ve already paid to reserve a spot for him there, but at the moment we need financial help to send him there,” she added.

Lillian Crook noted the federal government has funding available for students with disabilities, in the amount of $8,000, but only if they need extra equipment, such as a hearing aid, or to hire a tutor.

We’ll see at the school if one of the teachers or students can help him out so that he can access those funds,” she said.

Crook, president of the Hay River Committee for Persons with Disabilities, said the government should make it easier for adults with disabilities to access much-needed funds.

We’re forced to borrow all this money and he already has to pay back money he borrowed from last year,” she said. “They need to set money aside for adults with disabilities so that they can achieve their dreams. These students shouldn’t have to borrow money because, if they don’t make it, they have this huge loan they have to pay back.”

For the time being, Gene plays the waiting game and continues to draw. His program at VanArts is set to begin on March 11. He even has an apartment lined up and ready to go in Vancouver.

Recently, he sold some DVDs at the winter market in the hopes of making a few extra dollars.

The chance for me to go to this school is huge right now,” said the artist of the VanArts opportunity.

— Myles Dolphin