Paddy Kennedy is opening a new studio in Victoria this month called Kennedy Communication Studios - a place where the community can rehearse their presentations, and where she will provide Life Story and Journal Writing classes for women over 50.
“So many women have fascinating stories that so few share,” she says. “Take war brides. They’ve been so busy contributing, raising children, fitting into our culture that they’ve had little time or inclination to tell their tale. I’d like to help women in Victoria open up the doors to themselves.”
Paddy wants women to ask themselves: “What do I really think? And could I stand up there and perform it? Could I tell a story about my life and imbue it with enough meaning and significance that people would want to hear?”
“The answer is ALWAYS yes,” says Paddy. “Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel says, ‘to not tell your story is to betray your existence.’”
Paddy teaches her students that they can say anything to anybody if they know how to phrase it. If they use the wrong tone of voice, it will put people off in a nanosecond, but if they learn how to use their voices, they can have a profound effect on people.
“I lived in New York through 9/11. And the great Canadian anchor Peter Jennings at ABC news covered the crisis. The ratings for all other news stations fell off immediately following 9/11 because the entire nation, without knowing why, turned to the man with the voice that was able to calm a nation.”
Paddy teaches people to speak with confidence. In New York, she worked with CEOs and international business leaders in foreign accent reduction and the language of global business.
“There are some brilliant minds there, but many haven’t yet been able to meaningfully participate at the table because their idiomatic language fails them,” she says. “When you can’t speak the language properly, people assume you are stupid.”
While Paddy enjoys her work “in the boardroom,” her real love is taking people from the community and helping them find their voices - especially immigrants and women at risk.
“Don’t get me wrong, the boardroom stuff is exciting. It's really exciting to read about my clients in The Economist. I like it. But it doesn't get me up in the morning,” she says.
Today, Paddy works with young immigrants at VIRCS (Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society). In her Speak Up classes, they learn to confidently present themselves in English. They are required to practise speeches and poetry, which will culminate in a public presentation.
“I want them to know they have landed; they have the right to be here, and we're interested in hearing from them. I guess you can say this is, on a community level, my way of getting young international people to the global boardroom.”
Paddy recently moved to Victoria to help her mother recover from a serious accident. Her mother’s unpredictable recovery meant getting a job was out of the question. Fortunately, Paddy has an unquenchable entrepreneurial spirit that has always allowed her to land on her feet.
“I was a competitive figure skater,” she says. “Figure skating teaches you the fine art of falling and dusting yourself off because the show must go on.”
This spirit first awoke with Paddy realizing she could make a healthy income at a young age by coaching figure skating - that is, if she excelled. In those days, a professional skater had to align herself with a skating club and it was up to her to attract young skaters to coach. Paddy worked hard. Every day, she skated eight hours, followed with schedule that alternated between gymnastics or yoga and finished with 50 laps in the pool. Her work paid off when she turned professional as a top-qualified triple gold medallist.
But there were setbacks. She was known as the skater in the senior women’s division who wore a hockey helmet because she suffered a severe head injury that many thought would end her career. She didn’t let it stop her. She talked her doctors and her mother into letting her continue.
“My mom found me a really cute leather hockey helmet and I entered a competition. It was covered in the same fabric as my skating dress, which was pink with pearls. I competed in my first senior year with a hockey helmet on.”
Turning professional, Paddy’s reputation and tenacity was attracting many aspiring young figure skaters, and she did very well financially.
Unfortunately, after she endured all the pain and setbacks, Paddy was forced to retire in 1972 and missed the Olympics by a narrow margin because she suffered a second serious head injury and increased joint pain. It was a difficult, depressing time in Paddy’s life. She had to learn to walk and talk again.
“I realized the only way I was going to be able to get my life back was to set the bar really high. Otherwise, it wasn’t worth getting out of bed in the morning.”
She pined to go back to work and made it her goal. Her next entrepreneurial venture began because people started to ask about her story - how she began as a top-trained competitive figure skater and ended up completely disabled and started over again at 26 with little education.
After she told her story, she was inspired to join a Toastmasters group that met every Wednesday morning in Kitsilano. She lived in East Vancouver at that time.
“My body was very sick,” she says. “I had to train my body to get up, get dressed and go to work one day a week because I realized I had to somehow break the disabled moniker. I'd get about halfway down Granville Street when my body just capsized and I’d have to get off the bus, go into a back alley and vomit for 10 minutes.”
But she got to the meetings and participated every week until she was healed, and that experience led to the work she is now so passionate about.
“I knew I was not completely broken,” she laughs. “I guess I didn't know how to accept being disabled.”
She began teaching Chi Gong to terminal cancer patients as an alternative form of therapy to control pain. After a class one day, she asked one of her students what his biggest fear was as he faced his death. He started to cry and said, "That my children will never know my story.”
Paddy heard this fear from others repeatedly.
“When I asked other patients about their biggest frustration, they told me it was that no one really listened to them.”
She finally decided she would be the one to encourage people to find their voices while they could still tell their stories.
“It became my passion to help people ‘stand up and speak up.’ If we don't find the stories that connect us to each other, we rob ourselves and we rob our society.”
MARCH 2011 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND