When people ask Jessica Kruger "how did you end up this way?"—a brutal sounding question but she insists she's been asked it—she tells them about growing up on a sailboat.
From age six to 10, Kruger and her family lived on a sailboat and travelled to 54 different countries where Kruger says she witnessed poverty you can't even begin to imagine. "People with virtually nothing make the most out of those situations and still find happiness," she shares. "I feel like that is a big part of why I am who I am today and why I've always felt the need to make the most out of difficult situations."
When Kruger was 15 years old she got her first summer job painting houses. "We just started our second house when I was up two storeys at the top of the ladder, and I fainted," she recalls. "I didn't have a harness or anything, so I fell the two storeys."
After being rushed to the hospital they discovered she had broken her neck in four places and damaged her spinal cord. After surgery, she was classified as a quadriplegic.
People think that quadriplegic means that someone doesn't have use of all four limbs but Kruger clarifies it refers to impairment. She is a wheelchair user and does have some impairment in her right hand and triceps but she is able to use her hands.
"Before the accident, I was super outdoorsy, she says. "I did lots of sports, and we kind of felt like I'd lost a little bit of my identity after I had the accident. So I started looking for new hobbies and things to fill the void there and one of the things I came to was cake decorating."
Kruger is now the owner of the Vancouver custom dessert business The Stubborn Baker which specializes in elaborate imaginative feats of pastry and she incorporates stubbornness into every aspect of her life.
“As soon as I was out of rehab, and back to school, I was back in every club, I could be in and going on school trips," she recounts. "People thought I wasn't gonna be able to travel, I couldn't go to Disneyland and get on rides. I just have always felt the need to do everything because people expect me to be able to do nothing.”
Kruger baked cakes for her family and friends for 10 years while graduating high school, getting an English degree, and working as an event planner for a year before she decided that she didn't want it to be a hobby anymore and started looking into pastry schools - which wasn't without challenges.
"The first school that I applied to said that they weren't willing to accommodate somebody in a wheelchair," she says. "They told me that their space wasn't accessible. But I had been there before and it was so, it was just they weren't interested in whatever extra work might have come with having me be a part of the program."
The second school she applied to wasn't much better and told her that she would have to pay for two spots because she'd supposedly take up double the amount of room as an able-bodied person. Eventually, she met with the disability coordinator at Vancouver Community College and they told her they would do whatever was needed to include her which turned out was only a lowered workstation.
"When I graduated, I was kind of debating between looking to work for somebody else or starting my own thing and I definitely felt a little bit discouraged about the idea of working for somebody else just because of society's perception of what I was capable of was not a match with what I'm actually capable of," she says. "So I was really hesitant to put myself in this situation where I was faced with rejections again."
Never underestimate her
Kruger runs her solo business out of a shared commissary facility on Industrial Avenue which she says is a great stepping stone to legitimizing her business without jumping straight into a brick-and-mortar. She also appears at farmers' markets around the Lower Mainland and teaches decorating classes to other aspiring bakers and hobbyists.
She says that at school a lot of teachers challenged her and underestimated her but points out that her whole life is about problem-solving. "From the second, I wake up and get out of bed, and roll out the door in the morning," she says she is essentially problem-solving. It's also a talent that helps her with baking; she loves getting requests that let her be creative like a cake shaped like a flamingo, cookies that look like stick bugs for a nine-year-old's birthday party, or a dozen cupcakes inspired by Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans.
“I feel like my technique has always been, ‘if this is what you expect me to be able to do. Let me do 500 things that you don't expect me to be able to do so that there's no room left in your mind..to underestimate me.'”
She admits, however, it can get tiring and she is learning how to be okay with doing less, going slower, or asking for help. "It's okay if people underestimate me. At the end of the day, that's their problem, not mine. But I take a lot of pride in being able to do the unexpected."
Kruger may have found baking but she never actually gave up sports. At 15 she joined the coed B.C. wheelchair rugby team (also sometimes referred to as murder ball) where she was playing with men in their 30s and 40s, often as the only woman. She says she wound up in rugby because while it was a relatively new sport at the time, it was one of the wheelchair sports most designed for quadriplegics. "So it's the place where I could be like, most competitive, basically. That's why I wound up in rugby," she laughs. "I've always been super competitive. I kind of love being in a space that people didn't expect to see me and being able to uproot their perceptions of what a 15-year-old girl should be doing."
Kruger has been on the team for 14 years now and recently she competed with the Next Gen team at the national championships and won.
"I guess a theme throughout my life is challenging people's expectations of me."