Taking chances

November 20, 2013

Michael Heaton has always been drawn to the north. Born and raised in Southern Ontario, he earned a teaching degree from Queen's with a minor in film studies. After graduation he was offered a job in the Northwestern Ontario town of Atikokan, about 200 kilometres west of Thunder Bay. He leapt at the opportunity.

During the early years of his career he worked in film production at the Quetico Conference Centre and taught physical education. A full-time position drew him back to Southern Ontario, teaching geography at Port Hope's Trinity College.

Years later, Michael moved back to Toronto to care for his aging parents, teaching in the public board's alternative schools.

"I hit my 85 factor when I was living and teaching in Toronto and I thought there are other things I want to try, and I'm not getting any younger."

Michael logged onto iAccess Web, our secure member website, and used the pension calculator to determine what his retirement income would be. In 2011, he applied for his pension and officially retired from teaching.

He turned his focus back to one of his passions, outdoor recreation. Working with the City of Toronto, he helped to establish five outdoor BMX parks across the Greater Toronto Area. But it was while visiting friends back in Northern Ontario that he was struck with the idea of his biggest project yet.

"Someone told me the conference centre in Atikokan, the same place that I worked at back in the 1970s in film production, was for sale," he says. "The centre had run into financial difficulties, was purchased by an American investor, and then the financial crisis hit in 2008. Since then, it's just sat empty."

The facility is perched on 100 acres of woodland, with 1 kilometre of shoreline on Eva Lake. Michael's imagination swirled. He conjured up a unique vision of a school, with a BMX park, not unlike the ones he developed in the urban landscape of Toronto, nestled into the woodlands.

"I saved all of my life and I have a steady, reliable pension from my decades of teaching that allows me to take risks," he says. "My lawyer suggested that I find a beach in Cuba, but I just thought if I didn't give this a go, in five to 10 years I would always wonder ‘what if?'"

His advice to fellow retirees? "Now is the time to start ticking items off of your bucket list. We have a degree of security with our Teachers' pension that affords us the unique opportunity to take some chances and try something different," Michael says.

"In five or 10 years, it may be too late. Think of what you've always wanted to do and give it a shot."