A cautionary tale

(Cara Smith/AQ)

Kari Hirst moved to Halifax to take social work at Dalhousie University. Only one month into her studies, the Fredericton-area native celebrated her 18th birthday in 1994 with a gift of crack cocaine.

By second term, she had given up on school but accepted her loan money and spent it elsewhere.

“With all the emotional baggage I already had, and not knowing I was bipolar, I got right to partying and stuff, and really started to feel like I was a piece of property… And all that shit happened, and that’s sort of where the student loan went.”

Almost 20 years later, and long back in Fredericton after a second attempt at university at STU, she’s left with $20,000 in debt for her five university credits, as well as a criminal convictions for possession, mischief under $5,000 and solicitation.

Her student debts may be the least of her problems.

“Right now I need to get this whole career thing working so I can eventually pay for my pardon.”

•••

After her year in Halifax, Hirst moved to Fredericton, wanting to clean up her act. Two years later she wrote to the student loans office, saying that she was taking better care of herself and was ready for a second chance.

“I got them to give me a second [loan] to try out STU,” she said. “But then we took frosh week right to the end of April.”

While she had kicked her crack habit she still had trouble controlling her impulses to drink and party. At one point, she would drink casually in her morning class, leave to get drunk during lunch and sometimes return for afternoon classes buzzed.

It all added up to two years of university, no degree and nearly $20,000 of debt.

All these years later, she not much further ahead financially.

All of the money she makes or receives in government assistance goes to the cost of living. When that isn’t enough, she depends on resources for the impoverished, such as soup kitchens, to get by.

Her criminal record still haunts her. The cost of applying for a pardon, $750, is out of reach for her, she says.

It doesn’t make finding work any easier.

•••

Hirst, now 35, has two children. Her first born, her son, who lives with her family in Hainesville, was her motivation to kick her addictions. She sees him every other weekend. Her daughter lives with her in Fredericton.

“In my head I felt I could f*** up my own life, but not someone else’s, so that’s when I really got clean.”

She entered Narcotics Anonymous a few years ago, and sought counselling for the first time. It was there she was diagnosed as bipolar and learned techniques to cope with it.

“It’s hard you know, some people have all these problems, and are trying to fill holes with all these things that make them feel good, but you really need to feel good from the inside.”

She helps out with her church organization, youth groups and with people she has met in the community.

Still, she’s confronted with a long uphill battle: First, to find employment to support her family, then pay for her pardon, then her loan.
Without ever having obtained a degree, she’ll likely never be able to pay it off.

According to a website managed by the government of Canada to help people manage debt, with no savings and no option to get credit or a loan, she’ll likely have to declare bankruptcy, which will require Legal Aide.

But the financial dark cloud of her loan is far off compared to ones she faces day to day.

“I haven’t asked for help with the loan, but I have no money anyways,” she said. “When I have finances to advise, I’ll look for a financial adviser.”

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