For two years, Toni Bockus and her sister Sonja Gower drove from Prince George, BC to Edmonton—a 16-hour round trip—every month. What on earth could be worth that kind of time and effort?

Sisters Sonja Gower (L) and Toni Bockus (R) are both successful Vicars graduates working as RMTs in BC.

A new career, and a new life. Toni and Sonja were students at Vicars School of Massage Therapy. And it was worth it: they’re both now successful RMTs.

The road to Toni’s career as an RMT started a couple of years earlier. “I was working as a nursing unit clerk and was really interested in the health care field, but didn’t want to become a nurse,” says Toni. “A colleague asked if I’d ever considered massage therapy and I thought, ‘yeah that’s within my grasp.’”

Toni’s research into massage schools ruled out those in Vernon and Vancouver because they only offered a full-time, five-days-a-week curriculum. Then she came across Vicars. She was intrigued by the testimonials on the Vicars website by B.C. graduates who had gone back to B.C. and opened their own clinics.

Most importantly, it was the flexibility of the Vicars courses that mattered. “Vicars stood out because you can attend in-person once a month,” says Toni. “I liked the idea that I could maintain my job and bring in income while paying for school.”

Toni’s sister Sonja was also interested. At first, Toni and Sonja applied to the Calgary campus but then realized that in winter the highway through the icefields can be closed at times, so they opted for Edmonton.

“It was great to go with my sister,” says Toni. “We could split costs and the driving.” Often after an eight-hour drive the sisters would have to jump out of the car and go immediately into clinic. “It was nice supporting each other to get through the training because it was challenging and doing it alone would have been tough.”

And, as it turned out, because the pandemic hit three months after they started at Vicars, they and their families were in each other’s “bubble.” That meant they were able to practice on each other and their spouses when public clinic practice wasn’t possible. “My husband was having the best time of his life,” says Toni. “He got as many massages as he wanted.”

Vicars had quickly pivoted to online teaching at the onset of the pandemic. “The teachers were super aware of what we were going through,” says Toni. “They were so good and patient with us and let us ask a ton of questions. We were in our bubbles at home, and we couldn’t treat other people or look at different conditions, so it was really tough in a sense, but I feel the instructors did the best that they could.”

As the pandemic waned and the Vicars clinic could welcome clients back, Toni and Sonja were able to work with the public. “Our graduation was pushed back because of the pandemic but that extra time meant we could experience massaging other people, including people who had special conditions such as scoliosis or fibromyalgia,” says Toni. “It was intimidating at first, but it was great to put what we’d learned into practice and continue our training.”

Toni and Sonja graduated in November of 2021. After writing her RMT exams in Newfoundland in December that year, Toni set up her own studio in Prince George.

“Prince George is small, about 75,000 people, but before the pandemic, the waiting time to see a massage therapist was two years,” says Toni. “Once I opened the doors to my practice in June of 2022, I had all the clients I could handle.” Toni has two small children and works around their schedules, so she sees her clients within a five-hour window on weekdays. “I can book four massages a day and that allows me to make a good living,” she says.

Sonja Gower, who wasn’t available for this interview, works in a multidisciplinary clinic, also in Prince George.

Right now, Toni is focused on the continuing education required by the College of Massage Therapists of British Columbia to keep her professional registration current. Unlike Alberta, BC regulates both the practice of massage therapy and standards of massage education.

She’s pursuing two courses, one on Indigenous awareness and the other on professional development. Toni and Sonja are from the Cowichan Tribes first nation on southern Vancouver Island. “I don’t know a lot about the traditions of the Indigenous community here, so I’m taking a course to learn more about the community and fulfil my accreditation,” says Toni.

Working for herself is perfect for Toni at this stage in her life. “It’s so nice to have a flexible schedule and take days off when I need to,” she says. “I have a good, reliable clientele and a pretty steady flow.”

Does a flexible schedule, reliable income, and a rewarding career sound good to you, too? Find out more about a career in massage at an in-person or virtual Information Session or text 587-715-0600 for more information!

Mat Cardinal’s a bit obsessed with second chances. After all, he’s had two of his own: a second chance at a good career and a second chance at life itself.

We talked to Mat in April 2024 just before he and his hit country music band The Prairie States held a benefit concert, called Second Chance Songs, to help the University of Alberta Transplant Program give other Canadians second chances of their own.

Love good music and a good cause? Pick up your tickets to Second Chance Songs!

Mat Cardinal was near the end of his massage therapy education at Vicars School of Massage Therapy when Covid hit. The class of 2020 graduated a bit later than planned. Most went on to establish their careers as massage therapists. For Mat, though, the path was more challenging.

By the time Mat was 10, he had developed kidney disease, something he shared with his older brother Eli. To cope, the brothers focused on songwriting and making music together. But the disease worsened for both of them. Mat was in his early 20s in 2012 when his kidneys failed, and he spent a year on dialysis.

Mat’s father Robert turned out to be a match for Mat for a living kidney donor transplant through the University of Alberta’s Transplant Program. While Mat got his second chance, Eli, who had developed severe anemia after years of chemo to treat his kidney disease, passed away in 2014. After Eli’s death, Mat vowed to keep writing and playing music. In 2017, he formed a band with some good friends called The Prairie States.

Because Mat has to take immunosuppression medications for the rest of his life, during the pandemic he was under strict orders from his medical team to not leave his house.

“I was very happy about graduating from Vicars, but I wasn’t able to continue being a massage therapist because of my kidney transplant,” says Mat. “I couldn’t risk getting Covid.”

Music became even more important in Mat’s life while he was housebound, and the band’s recognition grew. Mat got vaccinated as soon as he could and, as the pandemic was winding down, the band’s fortunes took off. They were signed to a label and a new path opened up for Mat.

The band’s name, The Prairie States comes from a Walt Whitman poem about bringing the old country into the new, something Mat is praised for in his songwriting and singing. Mat has been honoured by the Edmonton Arts Council, and the band has won 11 Country Music Alberta awards, including 2023 top group/duo. If you listen to country, you’ll already know them from their songs “Waiting On You,” which hit #28 on Canadian country radio, or their breakout single “Rebel Phase.”

“Last year, we went to Nashville for a song-writing workshop with top names in the business which led to our fourth album, ‘Trouble Is,’ released this year,” Mat explains.

The Prairie States’ success, along with the kidney transplant that made it all possible, is the inspiration for the fundraiser when the band played at Edmonton’s Cook County Saloon. Cook County’s owners are big supporters of the band. Popular Edmonton brewery Sea Change had created a special “Second Chance” lager for the event. All proceeds from the evening will go to the University of Alberta Transplant Program.

“For such a long time, when I was a kid, I was just in survival mode,” says Mat. “I wasn’t really living because there were so many hospital visits, and I was going from being sick to not being sick to being sick again.”

“Thanks to my mom Tracy, my dad Robert, and the Transplant Program at the University of Alberta, I have a new life,” says Mat. “The surgical team is fantastic, and I have nothing but respect for the nurses who have been caring for and supporting me for a long time.”

“My message to anyone who is going through what I went through is don’t give up. It’s hard but I’m living proof that there’s a second chance,” says Mat. “And for those who are considering donating a kidney, it’s such a gift to give. You’re giving life to someone else so that they can continue theirs.”

Vicars School donated one day’s massage fees from the Edmonton and Calgary supervised student massage clinics to the program. At Vicars student massage clinics, students offer massages to the public as part of their practicum. The day’s clinics were fully booked and the money raised was donated to the University of Alberta Hospital Foundation in the name of Mat’s benefit.

The University of Alberta Hospital offers the most comprehensive organ and tissue transplant program in Canada, and provides life-saving care to Canadians in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, BC, Nunavut, Yukon, and NWT.

“I’m so appreciative of what Vicars is doing,” says Mat. “It’s just amazing for Vicars to use its platform to support the transplant community.”

Although Yellowknife, capital of the Northwest Territories, has only about 20,000 people, there are 15 or more massage therapists in town, and they are all busy.

Vicars graduate Shirley Harrison was one of them until the pandemic nudged her into early retirement. As in larger centres, Yellowknife RMTs work in clinics, spas or in their own homes, with the same business standards and customer service approaches. But living in a smaller Northern community means there are some unique differences.

“Everybody knows everybody,” says Shirley. “People are comfortable going into somebody’s home because office space is very expensive. I suspect that in Calgary or Edmonton, I might not want to go to somebody’s basement, but it’s normal here.”

Shirley addressed a wide range of needs in her practice, from sports injuries to pre- and post-pregnancy care, to general stress relief. “In Yellowknife a lot of people work for the Northwest Territories government and have very good extended health care benefits packages that include massage,” says Shirley.

“Many clients came to me because they wanted to use their benefits. Once they felt comfortable and safe then they wanted to see me on a monthly schedule.

The thing I’ll say about Yellowknife is that if you are pretty good at your job, and you’re consistent, you’ll have more business than you ever could imagine. I never advertised, and I was always as booked up as I wanted to be—with lovely people.

“If people are worried about the cost of the massage training program, you can recoup that very quickly,” she says

Shirley wrapped up her massage therapy career in Yellowknife sooner than she expected at the onset of Covid. Three years on, she still misses it.

“My clients were just the best in the world,” Shirley says. “There was not one person that I didn’t look forward to seeing when they came through the door.”

Like several Vicars alumni featured in this blog, Shirley trained at the Edmonton campus as a mature student. “That was a very scary thing, going back to school in my mid-forties,” Shirley says. “Not only because I was older but because I had never done anything science-based before.”

Vicars School turned out to be perfect for her. She loved the one four-day weekend per month schedule, as she still had a teenager at home. “I would fly down to Edmonton for that one weekend,” says Shirley. “When I returned home, I studied constantly because I was terrified of failing,” says Shirley. “The teachers really understood everything about being an adult student so the whole experience for me was wonderful.”

After graduation she worked for a year at a Yellowknife spa, which gave her some extra on-the-job and time management experience. By then, the last of Shirley’s three children had left home. She wanted to set up her own business, so she and her husband renovated their basement into a massage studio with a separate entrance from their home. Sometimes clients would run into each other coming or going, but no one really minded, says Shirley. It’s all part of living in a small Northern town.

More often than not, clients came in generations. “I would have the mum or dad as a client and then a grandparent would come, and then the son or daughter because they are in soccer,” says Shirley. “It was really fun to get to know families like that.”

As with other RMTs who run their own businesses, Shirley loved the flexibility of her schedule, and the work-life balance. “I started going to the gym in the evenings after my workday,” she says. “I became very fit and strong, which you have to be to do massage—and then doing massage helps you to stay fit and strong.”

One aspect of her practice caught her off-guard: her response to people’s pain. “I think many massage therapists are very sensitive people and we pick up on peoples’ energies,” Shirley says. “I know it was mentioned at school but for me to experience it was a huge surprise.”

“One time I experienced sudden neck pain, and it turned out the client had broken his neck in the past and neglected to put it on his intake form,” she says. “Or I would get headaches or become nauseated, mirroring what they felt,” she says.

Shirley had to learn to ground herself to manage her responses. Part of that involved developing a little ritual before a client arrived: “It really helped create a space between me and them.”

Shirley lives just outside Yellowknife, in the wilderness, which means she can be alone, as she says, a little bit too much. “The wonderful thing about running my business from home is that I would have to be physically and mentally prepared for clients,” she says. “I would have three or four clients a day and I would have to get out of my own head and think about them.” She loved the rhythm of seeing and caring for her clients, a gap that she’s still looking to replace.

Shirley has a couple of tips for RMTs who are thinking of working in a small community.

The first is the importance of the professional barrier between RMTs and clients, something all massage therapy students learn at Vicars, but that has special resonance in a small town. “There’s a fine line between being compassionate and getting a little bit too comfortable and too personal with your clients,” she says. “You have to keep clients at arm’s-length. You can’t become their friend.”

The second is advice she got from Janine Borger, one of her instructors, that she found particularly helpful. “I really encourage people starting out to go with their own strengths, their own personality and remember that whatever you offer and whatever your approach, people who are looking for that will find you,” Shirley says. “Go with who you really are. Don’t think you have to be somebody else because you don’t. Just be a very good version of yourself and people who want that will show up.

“I loved being a massage therapist and I’m so thankful for Vicars because it was very doable, and it really did change my life. It gave me a profession that I was proud of,” Shirley says. “When people would ask me what I did and I would say I’m a registered massage therapist, they would get that look on their face, that everybody-loves-a-massage-therapist look!”

It was a casual conversation at the doctor’s office where she worked that changed Diane Sheridan’s life.

One day a colleague’s sister dropped by for a visit and mentioned that she had just finished school. Diane asked her what she had studied. When the woman said massage therapy, Diane says it was like something went “bing” in her head.

The woman was a Vicars School of Massage Therapy graduate.

“By the end of the week, I was pretty much signed up to start,” says Diane. “I really didn’t have time to think about whether that was a good idea or not.” (Spoiler alert: it was!)

It wasn’t a completely impulsive choice, though. Diane did some research on various massage schools in Alberta before applying.

“I chose Vicars because no one else was offering the four-days-a-month program,” she says. “Really my whole reason for applying to Vicars was based on that.”

Diane applied in November hoping to be admitted at Vicars Calgary campus in January of 2019. But the schedule option she wanted to take didn’t start until the following September. Fortunately, she didn’t have to wait that long to get started with her training: she was able to begin Vicars online courses in Anatomy and Physiology and Pathology right away. As a result, by the time she started school she had a head start on the curriculum.

It was only once she was in the program did Diane realize what a great choice she had made.

“I thought that because I had a nursing degree already it would be really easy,” Diane says. “The fact that the program was challenging, and it really did exercise my brain, made me aware that Vicars took this very seriously and that it was it was a really good education.”

The four days a month at Vicars also gave her back her sense of self. Diane had moved to Sundre from England with her husband and four children nearly two decades ago and had put her nursing career on hold to raise her kids.

“When you go through life as a mum, you lose your identity a bit,” she says. “People in Sundre know me as the English gal or the twins’ mum, but for those four days a month when I attended class at Vicars, I was just Diane.”

Any qualms Diane had about her age were quickly dispelled. “We had students in our class ranging from 21 years old to me at 53,” she says. “On the first day I sat down next to one young woman, and we became fast friends straight away and have been super good friends ever since.”

Diane’s time at Vicars wasn’t entirely smooth sailing, though. Her first year of blended on-campus and online classes began in September 2019 and was supposed to continue with the same schedule until June 2020. The pandemic changed that—like everywhere else, Vicars had to temporarily shut down on-site instruction. Having a blended curriculum gave the school a leg up in adapting to the new circumstances, however, and zoom lectures started immediately.

“Vicars was right on top of the situation right away,” she says. “There wasn’t any worry that we were missing out on curriculum because we weren’t physically in class.”

The full realization of the quality of Vicars’ education for Diane happened after graduation in June 2021 when she was working in the field.

“Clients would say ‘I’ve never had this done before’ and I was thinking ‘Hang on. What are other schools teaching?’ because the particular therapy was a huge part of the Vicars approach to treatment.”

Diane had gone into massage therapy thinking that she wasn’t seeking a new career, but rather something extra she could do after her workday—massages for family and friends—given that her kids were soon graduating. “The whole premise of taking massage therapy was to exercise my brain,” says Diane. “But as I was going through school, it became very apparent that I was doing a lot of work and making a lot of sacrifices. I realized it would be stupid not to actually see this as a proper business opportunity.”

While Diane changed her mind about her approach to massage as a profession, her vision had always been to have a home-based practice.

“I had always worked for someone else, and I just didn’t want to do that anymore,” she says. “I had my massage therapy room set up even before I started school!”

Diane soft-launched her business, Beckett Park Therapeutic Massage, in August of 2021. In her planning, she had assumed that the business would take a while to build up, allowing her to keep her job at the doctor’s office. But once her doors opened, she was immediately busy.

“I had put a couple of ads in the community pages of the paper and had people calling at 11 at night and six in the morning,” says Diane. “Between my office job and my business, I was working 70 hours a week.”

It took Diane three months to hand in her notice at the doctor’s office. “It was really difficult because it was my financial safety net and I had to believe that my business would carry on and pay the bills,” she says, but: “It was the best thing I ever did.”

Two years later, Diane is earning twice what she earned in the doctor’s office, and she works half the hours.

“The whole vibe of my working life has changed and it’s amazing,” she says. “If I want to (book a) morning off to play pickleball or get a pedicure, I just do it.”

But it’s not just about the financial security.

“I have just the most amazing clients who say the most wonderful things,” says Diane. “It’s such a lift when somebody comes and says this is the best hour of their day or the best hour of their month. I just think how lucky I am that I get to do this every day.”

Diane’s clients aren’t keeping it a secret. Her business was voted number one in Sundre in The Albertan newspaper’s Peoples’ Choice Awards for massage therapy this year.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” says Diane. “I’ve only been in business for two years and I’m just so grateful to be recognized like this.”

That recognition is the icing on the cake for Diane, given how much she loves her profession. “It’s not that you’re helping people and taking away from yourself,” she says. “You’re helping people and it’s filling your cup as well.”

When Louise Drinnan started at Vicars School of Massage Therapy, she was a single mother with two young children, and she knew she would have to stay focused to make it work.

She remembers telling her family that she was going to be married to the course for two years.

“I told them that if I drift, I’ll catch up with you after graduation,” she says. Newly single, she knew the best way forward for her and her young family was to pursue the massage therapy career she had always wanted.

Louise attended class every week, which enabled her to work at her own pace and still get a good education. She and her classmates formed a study group that met weekly, something she says made all the difference in keeping up with the curriculum.

“Our instructors were incredibly supportive,” Louise says. “There was always someone to hold your hand if you needed that,” but they also encouraged the students to “go do it,” she says.

During the last part of the second year, Louise and some of her classmates found themselves intimidated by the heavy workload. Dan Hvingelby, one of their instructors, gave them some advice that really stuck with her.

“He said ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!’”

During her training, Louise fell “completely in love with the human body.” And it changed how she felt about herself. “It gave me confidence and purpose,” she says. “My son was too young to notice but my daughter was a teenager and old enough to see the difference in me.”

Part of that change was a renewed ability to cope and persevere for the sake of the new and satisfying career that she hoped the training would bring.

Louise’s yearning for a career in massage therapy had started when she was a teenager. After high school, she worked a number of jobs in the healthcare and wellness industries before joining an insurance brokerage as a receptionist to support her two young children. The stable hours and benefits of her job were valuable, but massage therapy was always in the back of her mind.

She had looked at courses at different schools around Calgary. The monthly class offered at Vicars School of Massage Therapy appealed to her. She thought she could make that work if she were allowed to take her vacation one day at a time. This would have allowed her the days off she would need to make it work (at that time, the monthly class schedule was offered over a three-day weekend on campus in addition to the at-home schoolwork).

“I made the mistake of telling my then-boss what I was thinking,” Louise says. And that was the end of that. Her employer was not going to make an accommodation that would result in Louise leaving to start a new career.

Louise stuck it out at her old job for another two years. It took a family tragedy to propel her into action. Louise had a female cousin with whom she was very close when they were children. They grew apart as adults and her cousin moved to rural Ontario. Then one day in February 2011, Louise’s cousin was found frozen to death by the side of a road.

The shock and grief of losing her cousin hit home for Louise. “That was my reset,” said Louise. “You don’t know what’s around the next corner and if you have a dream, you should chase it.”

Six months after her cousin’s death, Louise started in a weekly class at the Calgary campus.

“It was a big leap of faith,” Louise says. “I left the insurance brokerage, didn’t have a part-time job, and didn’t learn I had funding for massage school until the Friday before the course started.”

Louise graduated from Vicars in 2013, and after a short stint at another clinic joined The Wellness Studio as an independent contractor in 2014. She’s been there ever since.

“It’s a multidisciplinary chiropractic clinic with a really great team.”

Louise’s greatest satisfaction comes from seeing her work have a direct, positive effect on her clients. “I have this one client with dystonia, which is uncontrolled muscle spasms, whom I was treating biweekly for five years” says Louise. “At first, she was in a pretty constant state of spasm, but now between acupuncture, meditation, and massage, she can go weeks without a spasm.”

Another major source of satisfaction is when clients come back after a hiatus. “They tell me they were seeing someone else for a while, but they came back to me because the other therapist didn’t do the work that I do,” she says. “That’s pretty cool.”

“Just knowing that I’m having a direct, positive effect on somebody’s life, when I help them move better and feel better,” says Louise. “That’s what I consider to be a good day.”

For Lucie Bozdech, becoming a Registered Massage Therapist wasn’t just about starting a new career. It was about starting a new life. And she couldn’t be happier with the results.

Lucie came to Canada as a little girl after fleeing Czechoslovakia, now Czechia, with her family during the Cold War.

As an adult, she wanted to discover her roots and get to know her aging grandmother better, so she went back, thinking she would be there for a short stint teaching English. She ended up staying nine years. Eventually, however—after her grandmother’s passing, a marriage, and a divorce—it was time to come home. She returned to Canada with her toddler son, looking to reinvent herself.

Lucie researched colleges and universities, trying to find a program or course of study that would resonate with her. At the urging of a good friend who was already a successful massage therapist, Lucie began looking into massage therapy, booking appointments with several schools.

The first place Lucie walked into was Vicars School of Massage Therapy in Calgary.

“As soon as I entered, I thought ‘Oh, this feels right,’” Lucie says. “Sarah [Ward-Bakken] was the presenter and she answered all my questions and I was convinced right then that this was the school for me.”

Lucie took Vicars’ full-time, two-year course, choosing the weekly class schedule.  She found she was able to work part-time, care for her son, and keep up with the required practice and at-home academic assignments.

“What made Vicars stand out for me was that they are so flexible in meeting your lifestyle needs,” she says.

Any illusions she had about massage therapy training being easy were quickly dispelled, though.

“It was extremely intense, as intense as getting a university degree,” Lucie says. But she loved every moment of it. “I’m from a medical family. Anatomy, physiology, circulation—I loved the science-based curriculum and practical knowledge.”

When she graduated in 2015 and was looking for a job, she found the Vicars School name opened doors.

“In every interview, people said with a Vicars grad they knew they would be getting a highly trained massage therapist who performed very well, hands down,” Lucie says.

Lucie found her dream job at Salt Water Wellness Centre in Cochrane, owned by a registered massage therapist, which employs eight massage therapists.

“It’s such a positive environment,” says Lucie.

Massage therapy’s stress-free, positive, nurturing aspects are huge reasons why Lucie chose it as a career. She gives an example of one of her clients, an older woman who had lost her husband after nearly 50 years of marriage, whose doctor told her to try getting a massage.

“When she came in, I felt the heaviness of the grief in the room,” says Lucie. “I slowly started talking to her during the massage and she cried and then opened up and poured her heart out to me.”

After each of her subsequent monthly massages the client left feeling a little bit better.

“The other day she gave me a hug and thanked me for helping her through the most difficult time in her life,” says Lucie. “We’re not psychologists by any means, but it’s such an intimate situation to be in and for those of us who are empathetic it can be a wonderful addition to somebody’s care.”

Another reason Lucie loves working at Salt Water is the 18-minute drive to Cochrane from her home in Calgary each day.  “On that drive I see the foothills, the mountains, and the water and I think about how lucky I am.”

The other major reason she appreciates the career is the freedom that it gives her to travel.

“I consider myself international and massage therapy is a skill that is international. When my son is done high school, I have zero qualms about moving anywhere in the world. That’s the beauty of this career: you can take it anywhere.”

Canadian massage therapy standards are among the most rigorous in the world. Vicars’ students receive 2200 hours of training, a prerequisite for provincial and national accreditation. Standards in other countries vary. Czechia, for example, requires only 150 hours of training to obtain licensing. When Lucie, who is fluent in Czech, travels with her son to Czechia each summer, she works on a casual basis for a company that offers therapeutic massage to its employees.

The other aspect of massage therapy that Lucie values is the financial reward. “You get back what you put in,” she says. “I work hard and that’s reflected immediately in my pay cheques, whereas at a nine-to-five job you can work hard but you won’t see the results until you get a promotion or raise.”

Although Lucie works hard, she is always mindful of preserving her own health and strength. She’s met younger massage therapists who have issues from giving massages because they have neglected self-care. Again, it was her Vicars instructors who drilled the importance of correct body mechanics into her during training.

“I remember that more than anything else from school,” she says. “That grounding in proper body dynamics and form is always in my head.”

Looking back on her training Lucie says that the most important aspect about Vicars is how the students were treated. “All sorts of people come to Vicars from all sorts of situations, whether they hadn’t been to school for a long time, or they had full-time jobs, or spouses and families,” she says.

“What I loved about Vicars is that they are there for you and will do everything to help you be successful.”

What does a musical theatre actor and registered massage therapist do when she receives a major massage therapy award? When that person is April Cook, she makes sure all of the supporting cast shares the stage.

For April, the 2022 Massage Therapy Association of Alberta’s (MTAA) Peter Martin Award winner, the supporting cast includes her family and friends, classmates, mentors and “the kind, patient, inspirational and knowledgeable instructors” that she had as a student at Vicars School of Massage Therapy.

Originally from Prince Edward Island, April has been singing and dancing since she was three years old. As a young adult, she trained at New York City’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy and worked professionally all across the country. Although performing has been her chosen path since she was young, she grew increasingly interested in helping others. After her father passed away in 2011, that desire to provide comfort and help to people who need it most became a motivation.

In 2020, April, now married and living in Calgary, decided to follow her heart, and enrolled at Vicars School of Massage Therapy.

While she loved learning massage therapy, April found the impacts of Covid and the necessity of working full time while going to school challenging. She took a break after first year to perform in a musical and decided to take monthly classes when she returned for her second year. “I really enjoyed the four days of focused learning and then having three weeks between to work at my own pace,” she says. “It allowed me more space to absorb all the information.”

April is the third Vicars School of Massage Therapy graduate to receive the annual Peter Martin Award, which is given for accomplishments in the recipient’s first year as a practicing RMT, and their dedication to advancing the profession in Alberta. April plans to use the $750 prize to cover the cost of student loans and continuing education courses.

Corliss Robertson, one of April’s instructors and a reference for her Peter Martin Award application, says that April’s professionalism, her thirst for learning, and her contagious positive energy make her most deserving of this honour. Corliss singles out April’s excellence in the school’s Special Populations Clinic. “April really demonstrated her ability to make each one of her clients feel ‘heard’ and ultimately feel better.”

Vicars’ Special Populations Clinic welcomes people of all ages—from infants to seniors—and people living with mobility issues, cognitive disabilities, and complex conditions such as cerebral palsy and spinal muscular atrophy.

April’s “aha” moment happened when she started in the clinic. “I realized that I was passionate about massage therapy,” she says. “When I’m working with special populations, it requires more education, more confidence, and more listening, and gives me the opportunity to create an even greater connection with the client.” That for April, is what sparks real joy. And it continues to be the focus of her practice.

After graduating last October, April worked for a company in Calgary that specializes in treating people with special conditions, with a focus on pediatric care. While she loved the work and the people, she’d always known that she wanted to start her own business. At the beginning of March this year, April opened the doors to Kind Heart Wellness, located within Evolve Strength in Royal Oak in Northwest

Calgary. “I offer treatments at my clinic and also mobile treatments for those who either prefer it or require it, because I want massage therapy to be accessible for everyone,” she says.

April credits the flexibility and financial stability of her massage therapy practice for enabling her to continue performing in musical theatre. She also sees how her theatre background benefits her massage therapy practice. “You can’t be either an actor or a good massage therapist without being a good listener, being empathetic, and staying calm and confident,” she says. “Because of my dancing, I know my body really well and can relate to people when they have aches and pains.”

“I really love that as a performer, I feel that I have this gift that I can share with others,” says April. “And now I have this whole wealth of massage therapy knowledge and skills that can benefit everyone. To me this is just so rewarding.”

Did you know that over the past four years, one in every four students enrolled at Vicars School commuted each month from their homes and jobs in BC to Calgary or Edmonton for their massage therapy training?

Vicars offers an exceptional education that prepares graduates for all aspects of a successful massage therapy career, from anatomy to treatment planning to business skills. And regular readers will know that Vicars School is accredited by the same body that accredits massage schools in BC where massage and massage education are regulated.

But BC has several excellent accredited massage programs, too. So what’s so special about Vicars that inspires so many students to choose us, despite the time, inconvenience, and cost of travelling to Alberta each month?

We chatted with recent Vicars grads Ainslie Conway and Andrew Wautier to uncover why they chose Vicars.

Ainslie Conway knew that she wanted to be a registered massage therapist (RMT). She also knew that she wanted to keep living in Whistler, BC while she went back to school.

The one thing that she wasn’t sure about was whether she’d be able to find a school that would give her both the high-quality education and the flexible student experience she was looking for.

In addition to raising two young children, Ainslie and her husband own Back In Action Physiotherapy clinic in Whistler. She wanted to find a massage therapy program that would give her the most thorough training possible, given the sacrifices in time, livelihood, and family attention that going back to school would require. She also wanted to make sure her training would match the quality of the other services delivered at the clinic.

“We have high-level athletes among our clientele, and we have the Canadian Snowboard physiotherapy team and the Canadian ski cross physiotherapist lead working with us,” Ainslie says. “Expectations are high.”

And then—as if her standards weren’t high enough already—life threw another challenge her way. The Covid pandemic erupted just as Ainslie was researching massage therapy programs.

“I found that none of the colleges I talked to in British Columbia had a solid plan about how to train or offer clinical hours during Covid, while Vicars School had been offering blended-learning programs for decades and had a plan in place,” she says.

She had already hired several Vicars graduates at the physiotherapy clinic, and had been impressed by their performance, work ethic, and ability. Vicars School’s much lower tuition cost was also a factor in her decision.

The Vicars program is a full-time blended-learning experience, consisting of four in-person classroom days per month and on-campus student clinics. Between classes, students work from home, using high-quality online learning and study-at-home materials. The online work generally takes 15-20 hours a week.

The unique combination of a blended learning schedule and an education that meets the national curriculum standards means that Vicars attracts students from all over western Canada, the Territories, and beyond. The vast majority of them—25% of all Vicars students in the last four years alone—are from BC.

Because she lives in Whistler, Ainslie found the time restraint of flying into and staying in Calgary every month about the same as if she had attended a Monday-Friday program in Vancouver.

“I would have been driving five hours a day, every day to go to school in Vancouver,” she says. “And I would also have had to go into the student clinic on weekends.”

To get the most out of her visits to Alberta, Ainslie tacked on a couple of extra days to her stay in Calgary each month to earn her clinical hours at the Vicars student clinic. She was able to keep her travel costs down by teaming up with her fellow out-of-towners—including three other students from Whistler, who became her car-pool buddies to and from the airport.

Including Ainslie, there were nine students in that monthly class who travelled from outside Alberta for school: seven from BC, and two from Saskatchewan. Once pandemic restrictions were eased, the nine of them shared a house when they were in Calgary. Beyond just saving them money on accommodation, having the house (complete with kitchen and laundry room) meant they could travel with only carry-on luggage, eat better and more cheaply, and have a support system while away from home.

Back at home, Ainslie’s husband took on more of the household responsibilities, and her mother pitched in with childcare when needed. While the blended learning pathway was not easy for her and her family, Ainslie says the positives very much outweighed the negatives.

“It was great for the family because the kids saw what it was like to learn as an adult,” she says. “They were even involved in my studying, with colouring and drawing diagrams.”

Ainslie also found it led to better communication with her husband, both personally and professionally.

“He has three physiotherapy degrees and has worked for three Olympics, so he’s very experienced and was a great resource,” Ainslie says. “But massage is a different perspective, and I was able to identify when I needed his knowledge and when I didn’t.”

Ainslie was able to work part-time in her first year of study by allocating 40 hours a week to her schoolwork and filling in at Back In Action around her studies.

“In my second year, I definitely had to reduce my work hours. There’s a lot to learn and a lot of practice time required, and I wanted to ensure I could dedicate the time to be the best that I could be.”

Reality check: she remembers that to balance the full-time commitment of blended learning, she had to take some me-time when she returned from Calgary each month.

“It’s a very heavy content load and by Sunday my brain would be exhausted from trying to absorb everything. I found it important to take the Monday off when I got home, just to process it all and regroup.”

Ainslie graduated from Vicars in June 2022. Before she could practice professionally in BC, however, she needed to pass the board exams in a regulated province. Like many Vicars graduates, she chose to write her exams with the College of Massage Therapists of Newfoundland and Labrador. She was then able to transfer her registration to BC and works as an RMT at the Back in Action Clinic.

Like Ainslie, Andrew Wautier travelled from BC to Alberta each month to train at Vicars. Andrew flew from Prince George and graduated from the Edmonton campus in 2022.

As a certified athletic therapist who works in disability management for the Prince George health authority, Andrew wanted to offer more one-on-one treatment to his clients to improve their outcomes. The problem was that his services were not currently covered by benefits programs.

“As an RMT in a clinic setting, my clients would have their massage therapy covered through benefits and insurance programs,” Andrew explains.

Andrew looked into options for massage therapy training in BC, but with a full-time job and a young family, the requirement to attend daily classes for two years made it impossible. A friend told him about Vicars School of Massage Therapy’s blended learning program, and he enrolled in early 2020.

He flew into Edmonton once a month, staying with his sister and tacking an extra day onto each stay to fulfill his clinic requirements. In the two-year period, he only had one flight delay that set him back a day and one month where he missed an entire trip because Covid.

“The blended learning program is great for adult learners who have to keep full-time jobs and have families, and who know what their time is worth,” Andrew says. “Vicars did a fantastic job of that in terms of balancing people’s time.”