Labrador resident Nellie Kippenhuck, 42, is happiest when she is at work, getting her hands dirty. Nellie is one of five sculptors working at Moulder of Dreams, a pottery studio in Port Hope Simpson that opened in 2001 to help individuals who suffer from myotonic dystrophy (a form of muscular dystrophy). Though, in practice, it welcomes individuals who face other challenging needs as well.
The act of moulding pottery is considered physical therapy for individuals who suffer from myotonic dystrophy, which affects the nervous and muscular systems. Opening a pottery studio seemed a natural fit for Port Hope Simpson, where about 10 per cent of the isolated community's 500 residents have the genetic disorder. Nellie knows the affects of myotonic dystrophy all too well; of her 10 siblings, five inherited the disorder. Nellie was diagnosed at around age 12.
Nellie began working at the studio when it first opened. Just four years later, though, much to the disappointment of all those involved, Moulder of Dreams was no longer financially viable and was forced to close in 2005.
Then in 2007, Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) from Memorial University worked with the provincial government to establish funding to get the studio back up and running, while also working with studio staff to ensure the long-term sustainability of the business. And a year ago, Moulder of Dreams held its grand reopening with great fanfare.
"They were excited to come back," says Moulder of Dreams manager, Mary Penney, of the employees - including Nellie.
"It's the only job I ever had that I really enjoyed," Nellie beams. "It gives you something to look forward to, instead of just sitting home all day long. I feel good to get up and get ready and come over here."
Nellie (pictured left) says that when she was diagnosed with myotonic dystrophy 30 years ago, the news barely fazed her. She was young and carefree, able to enjoy all the same activities as other children her age. But that gradually changed as her condition worsened with age. By the time she reached her 30s, Nellie noticed she wasn't as strong as she used to be. And recently, she’s needed help to walk to work and her vision has begun to deteriorate.
"It would be so easy to give up," says Mary, who works side by side with Nellie and the other employees who are battling the disease. She admires the courage they've shown in seizing the opportunities the studio offers.
Thanks in part to their dedication, the reopened Moulder of Dreams is not just surviving, it's thriving. The staff has been able to purchase a bigger kiln (used to fire the pottery at extremely high temperatures), and has had a kiln shed built beside the studio, which is located in Port Hope Simpson's community centre. They have developed a new, attractive product line, which includes inuksuks, bowls, mugs and tea lights – and the studio has a website (www.moulderofdreams.ca). Mary says the finished products are impressive, especially to those who know pottery, and she believes the upgrades to the Trans Labrador Highway (scheduled to be completed this year) will only increase customer traffic through the studio.
Today, three individuals with myotonic dystrophy, including Nellie, work at Moulder of Dreams. From Monday to Wednesday each week, they can be found in the studio. With meticulous movements, their hands transform lumps of clay into gorgeous Newfoundland and Labrador-themed pottery. Their finished products can be purchased at the studio and at various craft shops throughout the province where their work is distributed for sale.
Meantime, SIFE Memorial continues to work with Moulder of Dreams to make sure its future remains bright and the employees, including Nellie, have a place to come back to for as long as they wish.