Aleesha Kostyrko-Jones' love of cooking was sparked at a very young age, spending time with her mum in the family home. "I have these fantastic, warm memories of being in the kitchen with her, trying to help and just watching everything she was doing in the kitchen. After taking cooking classes in high school, Aleesha discovered she had a real passion and talent for it. "I love preparing, creating and making food and I realised what I wanted to do with my life - I wanted to be a chef."
The Ruakaka resident uses a wheelchair as the result of an accident she experienced at the age of two and a half. As a result, for Aleesha the road to fulfilling her dream was paved with some very big obstacles. "Believe me, there are a lot of people who see my chair and don't want me anywhere near a commercial kitchen set-up! They think it's either too hard, or too dangerous," she explains.
Not to be deterred by others' attitudes, Aleesha's family have played a huge part in creating her strong sense of self belief. "Mum and Dad are fantastic at building my confidence. They thought I had real skill and talent in the kitchen and encouraged me to just go for it," she explains.
She also received "awesome" support from CCS Disability Action to help her move from school to employment. Her Community Support Coordinator, Kevin Anderson, worked to "smooth the way for me".
Together they made a step-by-step plan which included completing a 19 week cooking course at Northland training provider, NorthTec.
Kevin describes Aleesha as a determined and impressive young woman. "What can I say? Aleesha shines - her talent, her skills, her personality - when you are with Aleesha you will never say never."
After her studies, Aleesha met Oli Reuschel, Head Chef at the Kingsgate Hotel in Whangarei (now a part of the Distinction Hotel Group), who was looking for help in the kitchen.
"I had an interview and I was offered the job on the spot. I just couldn't believe it! That was in November 2014 and I have been working there ever since." Kevin helped to organise some modifications to the kitchen, including lowering Aleesha's work station and the cooking hob. An Occupational Therapist, Sarah Venmore, worked to find all the right equipment. "It was a real team effort for which I am very grateful!" says Aleesha.
Aleesha has seized the opportunity and continues to impress as she develops her skills. "I just love this job, and I love learning new things. I started in food prep before being moved to making desserts and cold entrees. This has now progressed to assisting with main courses."
Long term, Aleesha dreams of running her own "food truck" catering business. "I could work at fairs, markets and concerts (I go to a lot of concerts!), as well as catering for weddings and big events. Mum used to work in catering and she thinks I could do it, so why not dream big?"
Her experience with CCS Disability Action has also inspired her to work with other disabled youth to see them thrive and succeed, as she has. Aleesha took on a leadership role at a national youth-focused disability event called The Gathering. She has since been employed as a co-facilitator for CCS Disability Action's Whangarei Youth Group.
Aleesha does not feel defined by the limitations others may place on her and encourages others to embrace a similar outlook, whatever their passion may be.
"I don't know of anyone else in New Zealand working in a commercial kitchen from a wheelchair but I hope I am just the first of many."
"You just need the right support, confidence in your skills and to not be afraid of showing those skills when required. I am hoping that I can inspire other young people with disabilities to just go for it - to chase their dreams."