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Former soldier from Arnprior overcoming injury, finding new purpose through Sweetlife Flora nursery

Kristin Topping went looking for a new career after a brain injury took her out of the military. She found Sweetlife Flora after she found herself.

Arnprior's Kristin Topping is the winner of a 2021 Prince’s Trust Global Award.

Topping received the award for the determination she showed to overcome a brain injury and create Sweetlifeflora.ca, a new online nursery for exotic plants.

The Prince's Trust Global Awards, given out on March 11 in a virtual ceremony from the U.K., recognize young people who overcome catastrophic obstacles, and by doing so, break down social barriers and clear a path for others.

“I was shocked I won because there were so many nominees that had accomplished unbelievable things,” Topping, 40, says from her home. “It was a shout-out validation of what I could do.”

However, in order to create her new business, Topping had to recreate herself first.

After working as an engineer in the Canadian Air Force for 22 years, Topping suffered a severe concussion during a military exercise in 2016.

What followed was two years of hell in rehabilitation. The concussion had impaired Topping's executive functioning – her ability to make decisions, strategize and plan communications systems. Tasks she used to do in an hour now took a week to complete. Eventually, she realized the military career she loved, might be done.

“After the accident, my personality changed. It was more than frustrating. I became isolated.”

The one place she could forget her injury and her upside-down life and feel normal again was her garden. She had grown up around gardeners, helping her mother and grandmother grow their African Violets, vegetables and perennials at the family home in Vauxhall, Alberta. In her journey back to health, Topping found gardening healing.

“I always enjoyed looking after plants,” she says. “It's not a chore looking after plants, but it's self-care and mindfulness taking care of plants. By looking after plants, I was healing myself, relearning skills, learning patience. I felt changed.”

One night during rehab, a friend invited Topping to a Prince's Trust Canada Operation Entrepreneur seminar, where former soldiers learn the skills necessary to launch their own business. Topping found the seminar so transformational, she registered the Sweetlife Flora domain name later that night, and her own business, Sweetlifeflora.ca in 2018.

“Operation Entrepreneur is the best thing that happened to me,” she says. “Without them, there would be no Sweetlife Flora.”

“By going through this profound change, I realized I'm a better person post-concussion,” she adds. “My military experience set me up for success, gave me the leadership, problem-solving skills project management I needed to run a business.”

Sweetlife Flora imports exotic indoor plants from Asia and South America including some of her favourites, Monstera Obliqua and Philodendron Dillietiae. With support from her husband Steve, Topping built a home on a 12-acre lot outside Arnprior large enough to house a giant plant studio and to accommodate the large greenhouse. She acclimatizes plants to the Canadian climate in her indoor garden studio, and ships them across Ontario via Plantrunz shipping service. This year's restock will be ready to go on sale on her website on March 27 at 7 p.m.

After two years in business, Topping has plans to take Sweetlife Flora to the next level with her own store.

“I'm not one to toot my own horn, but I'm proud of what I've done with Sweetlife.”

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