GBC student Walter Acosta carves out a new life after injury

Walter Acosta, a business administration student at George Brown College (GBC), has been living a difficult life on the way to his ingeniously simple talent, stone carving, that he showcased this year at Latin Fiesta held by the Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS) club in the Kings Lounge on Nov. 21.

The organizers gave Acosta an opportunity to present his work, currently displayed outside the Kings Lounge, to a full house.

Stone carvings as well as jewelry pieces are done in Mexican and indigenous styles and look like ancient artifacts. Using amatuer instruments, Acosta transforms the stone into moving pieces; stone ducks shaking their necks and sculptures rolling out their tongues.

The talent was discovered 10 years after Acosta arrived to Canada from El Salvador. An early morning trip to the Toronto Island in 2002 became a starting point of his new life.

“I remember I went there to enjoy beautiful weather with my kids. While we were walking along the beach I was picking up some small rocks and two of those really grabbed my attention,” said Acosta. “I decided to take them home and was so desperate to carve them as I felt they were waiting for me. The next day I went to my storage room and I started to carve. I had a feeling that I was not alone. This gave me goose bumps. After a couple of hours I had two small faces in my hands. They were thanking me for reuniting them.”

To feed his family, Acosta, a former electrician and a new immigrant who couldn’t speak much English at the time, started working in a McDonald’s restaurant.

He was always hungry for knowledge as he worked from six in the morning until 10 at night and also read equipment manuals. Within a year Acosta improved his English and was promoted from customer service to a supervisor position.

After more than 10 years of experience in McDonald’s and Shoppers Drug Mart, he ended up working as a welder for a construction company. Getting paid more, Acosta could afford taking care of his wife and three kids while carving stone in his spare time, before a tragic accident happened.

“In 2007 I had an industrial accident and that’s how the whole nightmare started. In order to improve my life, I required lots of therapy. I almost lost my hand and ability to create as I work using my hands,” said Acosta. “In 2008 my son had got cancer, leukemia. For three years I had to take care of him. At the same time I had to go to the therapy and take medication.”

Spending time at the hospital with his son, Acosta started to assist the therapeutic clown program at Sick Kids Hospital, participating as a photographer. Minimizing the stress for the sick kids and their parents, he forgot about his hand’s trauma that had started to slowly recover.

“At these moments you realize how their work is important as a kid’s smile is the most precious thing that can happen over there,” said Acosta.

As he discovered his passion for photography at Sick Kids, Acosta started implementing this skill while carving. He took pictures of his works from different angles until a piece was complete, and he managed to present them at different places.

Acosta’s participation in the therapeutic clown program was not his first experience working with kids. After night shifts in Shoppers Drug Mart, he volunteered his time at St. Paul Catholic Elementary School during the day where he taught art classes.

“Most of my friends were criticizing me and even calling me stupid, as in my free time I was teaching children art without getting paid,” said Acosta.

Three years after the industrial accident, The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (formerly Worker’s Compensation Board) helped Acosta enrol in the business administration diploma program at GBC for a professional retraining due to his inability to work at his previous position.

“My first day at school I couldn’t understand anything. That was really traumatic for me to go back to school,” said Acosta. “Students have lots of stress; I couldn’t even imagine how much stress my kids had before I started school. Everyone deals with it differently: some smoke weed, use drugs or sleep too much. I was going to school and had to do therapy, I also had to deal with my son. There was too much on my plate. So I started carving without knowing that I was dealing with stress at the same time.”

Explaining how he discovered his talent, Acosta metaphorically calls it imaginary “third luggage” he managed to take from El Salvador across the border that he opened 10 years after his arrival.

“They allow you to take only two bags of luggage on the plane but I have brought three. The third luggage is what people call talent. I call it taking out the dust. You find a rock – you take out the dust,” said Acosta.

Through all the ups and downs, he manages to stay optimistic and doesn’t give up, living his “la vida loca.” Now a single father, Acosta finds not only time for the kids, but also his inspiration in them.

“Things that are happening are happening for good. That helped me to improve myself,” said Acosta. “I am getting stronger every time. I told my son that I will be with him until he finishes all the treatment and at the end we will be laughing.”

Finishing his last semester, Acosta has changed his views over the years. Being a “labour” person before the program started, he has turned his goal to managerial positions and creating stone-carved pieces for a living.

“My plan is to make more unique handmade things and put it into the market,” said Acosta. “I was like an unpolished stone. At George Brown they take this stone, they cut it and then you become something useful.”

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GBC student Walter Acosta carves out a new life after injury