Brothers not held back by blindness

Rural enterprise | Twin brothers operate home-based computer and baking businesses in Swan River, Man.

SWAN RIVER, Man. — Wrangling computer viruses and tempting palates are no small feats for two twins from Swan River.

The 29-year-old entrepreneurs are both legally blind.

Christopher Yelinek repairs, sells and sets up systems at Cat ’N’ Mouse Computers, while Devon prepares an assortment of cookies on order at Devon’s Cookies.

They grew up on a grain farm at nearby Minitonas, but continuing the family business was not an option for the pair, who has shared a home in town for more than a decade.

Christopher brings the cellphone close to his face, demonstrating how he overcomes sight challenges by using bigger computer monitors, magnifiers and screen readers.

“A lot I know what to do and I don’t need the screen,” said Christopher, who studied computer science through Athabasca University’s online program.

He dropped it midway after finding it difficult to obtain accessible materials.

Christopher has partial vision in one eye, while his brother is both blind and autistic.

Devon does the mixing and measuring in his cookie, muffin and cake business, using scores of cookbooks and family recipes.

“I liked the baking part since I was a child,” he said.

His mother, Evelyn, said cookies range from pinwheel to peanut butter and have received awards at the local fair.

“Someone just has to eat his cookies once and they’ll remember his cookies forever,” she said.

Devon said his mother helped him set up the home-based business, getting supplies from larger warehouse stores to cut costs. His support worker helps him make the cookies.

Devon, who is challenged to sit still for very long, used to also do ceramics, but cut back to only cookies.

“With autism, it’s easier to focus on one thing,” Evelyn said.

The disabled face many of their own challenges but also those posed by others.

“You get judged before they see your abilities,” said Christopher.

“I am a mechanic. I’m just a different type,” he said of his job, which in the past included developing games for the blind.

“I always like to help people,” he said.

His work is done over the phone, online and in person as he works through hardware failures and viruses. He updates a stable of specialized equipment and sells equipment on order for customers.

“It’s not worth having piles of computers on the shelf. We order what we need rather than box pushing,” he said.

“Being rural, you have to do a little bit of everything.”

Christopher also services his newest hobby of amateur radios.

He recalled helping a student whose laptop computer crashed with her college thesis trapped inside.

“Young kids don’t back up their crap,” he said.

When doing startups, Christopher finds out what his customers’ needs are first and then tries to outfit them with the appropriate software.

“We put on only what you need,” he said. “Most people don’t need extra junk, it only slows it down.”

Devon and Christopher said many balk at the cost of repairs and find replacing computers easier.

“Like a car, you might as well get new,” said Devon.

Christopher runs his business from home and from a small office in the Be Seeing You Vision Centre on Main Street, where a smattering of mouse devices, monitors and other computer equipment line workspaces and shelves.

Optometrist Dr. Michele Marshall provides him with the space rent-free, and he fixes both her office and home computers.

“If a computer doesn’t work, we have him to call on,” she said.

“I don’t know who else we’d use around here. He will go above and beyond to help fix things.”

Evelyn said Christopher’s strengths lie in his ability to clearly articulate how to fix computer problems to customers rather than just show them.

“He gives perfect instructions,” she said.

Her parenting philosophy included instilling a work ethic, noting how the twins once did snow removal and wood hauling.

“I believe kids have responsibilities in a family,” said Evelyn, whose third son, Paul, 19, is a trucker in Winnipeg.

“If they want extra things, they work for it.”

Evelyn farms with her husband, Larry, works full time for the Manitoba government and also runs a home-based scrapbooking business called Scraps of Love.

Evelyn’s adhesives, copics, dazzles, dyes and embossing folders fill a room in the twins’ home from floor to ceiling.

“I’m not here to put caviar on bread, jam is OK,” she said of her modest business goals.

Larry said life in town is less isolated than on the farm, and access to services and employment is better.

“It gives them more opportunity with people. Life is much richer for being in Swan River,” he said.

“It’s healthy for a person to be able to do something.”

All three home-based businesses use websites to market their goods and belong to the Swan River Chamber of Commerce.

Heather Nielsen, chamber president, said the town’s businesses provide a wide variety of goods and services to meet local needs.

She said the advantages of chamber membership is increased exposure through its telephone directory, website, placemat promotions and access to trade fairs and chamber meetings.

“It’s very local based and face based,” she said.