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Women in Waste series: Karen Odegard

In a few heartbreaking moments, Karen Odegard’s world fell apart.

A young mother of two at the time, she returned from her part-time job to find her husband cleaning out their house. He was leaving her, and taking everything they owned.

“It was totally out of the blue,” she said. “In that instant, I remember feeling everything come apart.”

Karen had married young, given birth to two gorgeous boys, and settled in the outskirts of Halifax, NS. While her husband worked full-time, she took shifts at her local Tim Hortons to make ends meet.

His sudden departure left her destitute, with no support for her sons, who were aged just five and three at the time.

“We had nothing — no furniture for the boys to sit on,” she recalls. “A friend took me to Walmart so I could buy an inflatable couch.”

Things looked extremely bleak. With no way to get to work, Karen was forced to resign from her Tim Hortons job, which left her with no income. She could no longer afford daycare. She was completely alone and at rock bottom, with two small children to care for.

Even in this darkest of times, Karen knew she had to find a way forward, for the sake of her boys.

Things took a turn when a neighbour of Karen’s suggested driving a school bus. She’d be able to work regular hours, bring some money in and take the bus home, which would help solve her transport issues.

There was one problem: Karen didn’t have the right license to drive a bus.

Determined to better her situation, Karen scraped together the money to get her license and begged her neighbour to look after her kids while she studied.

After much hard work and while continuing to care for her kids, Karen got her class 3 driver’s license and was able to start work as a school bus driver.

“It meant the world to me — it gave me my freedom back,” she said. “I could now do everyday tasks like pick up groceries and go to the drug store which had been challenging without a vehicle.”

When a full-time position came available, Karen jumped at the opportunity. With her independence restored and her children provided for, things began to look up.

But as the years passed, Karen yearned to give her family more. They was still living paycheque to paycheque, with no money for extras.

“My boys never asked for anything, but sometimes at the grocery store they would say ‘Mom, if there’s anything left over can we have a treat?’” she said. “It would break my heart because I wanted to give them everything, but I couldn’t.”

After seven years of bus driving, Karen ran into an old friend who had recently taken a job as a dispatcher with a local waste management company. She told Karen that the company was hiring garbage truck drivers and offering steady hours, good pay and full benefits.

“I seriously considered applying, but as a young woman I just didn’t see myself as a garbage truck driver,” she said.

However, the prospect of more money for her family played on Karen’s mind. Eventually, she took a chance and put herself forward for a seasonal position while school was out.

When Karen was hired to drive a residential garbage pickup route in summer 2006, she was the only female garbage truck driver in Eastern Canada.

She juggled a tough working schedule of early mornings, long shifts and late evenings with raising her kids solo, but Karen was determined to make it work. Her resolve paid off, and when her seasonal contract ended, she was offered a full-time role.

Thirteen years on, as an employee of GFL, Karen says working for the company has completely changed her life.

“I’ve worked hard and been rewarded for my efforts,” she said. “Since working for GFL, I’ve been cross-trained on dispatch and been promoted to Residential Route Supervisor.”

Gone are the days of scraping by. Karen has been able to buy a new house, a new car and is even planning a honeymoon of a lifetime to the UK with her new husband (who she met at work). Her two boys are also thriving — one is an apprentice heavy duty mechanic and the other works in construction.

Karen’s story is one of dedication, determination, bravery and extraordinary perseverance. She’s been a pioneer for female drivers in the waste industry (and she’s happy to see that there are now many more of them), inspiring others to take up the mantle.

It’s an achievement she never could’ve imagined as a struggling young mother all those years ago.

“I owe so much to the people who have helped me out along the way,” she said. “My manager at GFL believed in me and took a chance on me 13 years ago – I still think the world of him today.”

And the one piece of advice Karen would give to women contemplating a driving career?

“You’ll never regret getting your license,” she said. “It’ll give you security and freedom, and open the door to well-paid, full-time work.”

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