Karen August

Karen August
Medicine Wheel Monuments
LD-ACE Graduate

Karen August is a member of the Neskonlith Indian Band (which itself is part of the Shuswap Nation). Karen is an entrepreneur and has been working for herself as a contract caterer for hire. She is also a single mother and a grandmother. She was raised in foster care but grew up to be very curious about where she came from; as a young adult, Karen returned to the Shuswap region of BC and has lived there ever since.

Throughout her career, Karen has worked in a variety of community-focused positions. For example, she’s worked at her local Band office as a Councilor, the local school district as a teacher, and spent time working in local Community youth programs. Karen is passionate about Community wellness and wants to see Nations all across the country thrive. Karen is always helping others and trying to raise community members up. She believes this willingness to support those around her stems from growing up in foster care; from a very young age she learned to help others and to be kind. In particular, she likes to go in “roundabout ways” to help others. She uses her creativity to find ways to support her community.
“I want to show others – especially other First Nations people – that we can do it on our own”

Initially, Karen heard about the ACE program from a flyer posted in her home community; she was immediately intrigued by the program and attended a presentation by ACE administrators in the Adams Lake Community Centre. She was “excited by” the idea of ACE and signed up as soon as she could. Before ACE, Karen was working small contracts cooking and catering in the local community. The best way that I can describe Karen, as I know her, in one word is: persistent. She, like many of the students and graduates of ACE, has never been handed anything in her professional or personal life, but instead has worked very hard for all that she’s accomplished. For example, when she wanted to get her Language Teacher’s Certificate but couldn’t afford to live in or drive to Kamloops (where the course was held), she hitchhiked to each class instead. She has never let a barrier or obstacle stop her from achieving her goals. As Karen puts it, she often looks for “a roundabout way” to accomplish the things she chooses to focus on.​​ 

Karen’s business concept is called Medicine Wheel Monuments. As Karen puts it: “living on Reserve and going to different funerals, [she’s] noticed that a lot of the graves have no markers.” She noted that sometimes there are grave markers like constructed wooden crosses used in these funerals – but these markers quickly deteriorate and/or fall over. According to Karen, many families who live on Reserve – as much as they might want to – can’t afford to buy a traditional gravestone or grave marker. Generally speaking, traditional grave markers cost about $2,000-5,000. If you think of this cost on top of the cost of a funeral and coupled with the other financial expenses that are associated with the loss of a loved one, you can easily see that gravestones are actually a luxury product. Karen sees the obstacles that those in her community face when trying to make this decision: firstly, friends and family who have lost a loved one want to honour those loved ones with a funeral and appropriate grave markers, but they recognize that spending money that is needed desperately elsewhere might be short-sighted. True to form, Karen has recognized this obstacle and is finding a way around it.

Currently the price points of her products are about $500 – significantly lower than the traditional grave marker. Using local engraving shops and 3D printing technology, Karen will create customized grave markers at a fraction of the cost of stone or marble markers. She intends to work closely with local bands and individual families to create personalized markers and to replace markers that have deteriorated over time. Karen notes that she “wanted to create something for our People – for the lower income people out there, and not just First Nations people – who might need it.” Medicine Wheel Monuments will create durable, personalized grave markers; Karen intends to sell them to local bands and to individual family members. 
When Karen came into the ACE program, she was developing three separate venture ideas before focusing her attention on Medicine Wheel Monuments. However, after only some preliminary market analysis, she realized just how badly a product like this is needed, not only in her local community, but all across the country. People shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for not being able to afford to mark their loved one’s graves; Karen’s business provides a path for grieving families and friends to have pride and dignity at the funerals of their loved ones. She’s creating a product that is beautiful, individualized and, most-importantly, low cost to the consumer.

While Karen recognizes unmarked graves aren’t necessarily the most pressing or consuming issue in the lives of low-income First Nations and Canadians more generally, she also recognizes that it is a problem that can be solved and it is a problem that matters. Karen hopes that her products will relieve at least a little bit of stress from her customers’ shoulders, and help them to feel pride and dignity in trying times. “I’m helping when people are grieving – I’m helping them through that process.”
Karen’s favourite part of the ACE program has been the fact that the UVic professors and guest speakers come into the local Communities for the ACE workshops. She notes that this “makes it easier for some of us who can’t afford to pay the tuition and the transportation” and all of the other costs of a formal post-secondary education. Having all of the ACE instruction occur in-Community is an important aspect of the ACE program design and I was glad to see that it makes a difference to students like Karen. ACE professors and guest speakers learn so much from the students in terms of cultural exchange and it really helps them to become better listeners and better professors for all of their students.

In terms of advice for future students, Karen had some honest words for those interested in the program. She said, “it’s going to be a long haul… [The program] takes a lot of endurance and persistence.” Karen noted particularly how difficult it can be if you’re trying to work while also participating in the workshops and completing all of the assigned work. However, she notes that this experience, while difficult, is “part of the business learning too.” She understands that through this experience she is “already learning skills to budget, manage and to make it work.”
Karen is creating her business, Medicine Wheel Monuments, not only for herself and for her customers, but as something she can leave behind for her children.

Karen wants to show her children and her grandchildren that running a business on Reserve as a single mother is not only possible, but an exciting opportunity. Karen graduated from the ACE Program in September 2016, and we at ACE are excited to see where Karen takes Medicine Wheel Monuments going forward!

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