A HELPING HAND
Louie Gaudet is a practical man, a tradesman. And a literacy worker. He doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty and he doesn’t hesitate to wade into the muddy waters where literacy merges with economics, addiction, family poverty and mental health.
by Suzanne Ahearne for The Vancouver SunSeptember 22, 2008
I was awarded the 2009 Peter Gzowski Literacy Award of Merit (PGLAM) for this article as part of a Vancouver Sun Series "The Face of Literacy," along with colleagues Darah Hansen, Catherine Rolfsen, and Denise Ryan.
The PGLAM is given by ABC CANADA in honour of the late broadcaster and journalist Peter Gzowski – a passionate champion for literacy. The PGLAM is awarded to a journalist whose work has enhanced public understanding, support for, and awareness of the literacy cause.
What he likes about being a house painter — the instant gratification and the look in people’s eyes when they see the transformation a lick of paint can make to their homes — he also likes about working for literacy.
“The look on people’s faces as they push through things and understand, when the light comes on. ... Oh, that is huge for me,” Gaudet said. Though sometimes, he acknowledges, a transformation can take years.
Gaudet works at a community-based adult literacy program in one of Canada’s fastest growing cities. Project Literacy Kelowna was founded to help the estimated 48 per cent of working-age Canadians the government has identified as having levels of literacy too low to succeed in the changing economy.
The estimate is in a federal government report published in June, called Reading the Future, based on interpretations of the Canadian data collected from the 20-country International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS).
Most who walk through the door fit the mould of those whom statisticians have dubbed “Level 2” learners on a one-to-five scale. They function at somewhere around a Grade 6 to Grade 9 level of reading and writing — enough to read this newspaper, with varying levels of comprehension.
The majority have some high school education but may have quit or were pushed through with a “certificate of completion” instead of a high school diploma. Some of them speak English as a second language.
Almost all are between the ages of 18 and 65, and nine out of 10 people are in the program to improve their literacy skills as a way to get better-paying work.
Many of the roughly 600,000 British Columbians at this level aren’t even aware that they have a literacy problem until they come up against it like a brick wall after losing a job, or because of changing requirements in the workplace.
For many learners, it’s hard to separate literacy from a tangled web of other issues affecting their health and self-esteem.
Gaudet has met many men in that situation in his work running a trades-specific essential-skills literacy program, the only federally funded part of the Kelowna project. One was Lloyd McClelland. Gaudet keeps this story as his personal touchstone of success.
As Gaudet tells it, McClelland walked into his office with a Grade 9 education, a string of convictions behind him, health problems, drug addictions and a death wish.
“He was on his way to commit suicide. He’d had it. He was in the gutter. He was at the rope’s end. I don’t know what prompted him, but he was on his way to the lake. He was going to weight himself down and go in. Strung out on drugs. No money.”
“I was available,” Gaudet remembered, sitting in an office full of books with titles like The Boilermaker’s Manual, Occupational First Aid and Driving Commercial Vehicles, “so we just sat down and right away I thought, this guy’s at his wit’s end. So we just talked. It was late in the day. Everybody went home. I sat there and talked to him.”
The conversation led eventually to drug rehabilitation and Gaudet found McClelland a carpentry job. Years later, he saw McClelland become an addiction counsellor himself, working on the same level as “guys with master’s degrees.”
Gaudet doesn’t want to make himself out to be a hero. “It’s just what we do,” he said.
What literacy workers do is getting harder all the time. Although in B.C. the funding climate for adult literacy is currently better than in most other provinces, keeping community adult learning programs open in the face of federal funding cuts — like the $17.7 million dropped from the federal budget in 2006 — takes enormous dedication and creativity.
Such programs — 62 of them in B.C. according to Literacy B.C. — are run mostly with skeletal staff, a board of directors and a roster of volunteer tutors who work with learners one on one.
They are designed to offer literacy services to the most vulnerable, most marginalized people with literacy issues, as an alternative to more academic college-based programs that can be intimidating to many people, especially those who had negative school experiences. They move with the needs of an individual community to accommodate different learning styles, and the multitude of issues people like as McClelland bring with them.
Jean Lee is a volunteer tutor and part-time paid learning disabilities consultant at the Kelowna project. A teacher for 40 years in elementary schools in California, she retired to Kelowna in 1987 and promptly set to work tutoring the hardest-to-teach adults — people with mental health issues, and those with a myriad of named and unnamed learning disabilities.
“You need to be careful,” said Lee, a bit more cautious than Gaudet about getting involved in the many issues people bring with them to their tutoring sessions. “We are not counsellors. Up front, we tell them, ‘We are here to help you with your literacy issues.’ We caution new tutors to be very aware of that.”
That doesn’t stop her from taking on clients with complex issues like the single-mother with dyscalcula (the numbers version of dyslexia) who needs to improve her math to get into beauty school, or the well-educated Vietnamese artist and chef working on his English skills, still suffering from post-traumatic stress from his days as a soldier.
“I know they are interconnected,” she said, “but sometimes you have to deal with what you can deal with, or it can be overwhelming”
Tutors are given 12 hours of training before being linked up with a student. It’s not much, but they are well supported with a library of resources and more experienced tutors, like Lee, to mentor them. Lee said most of the adults in the program weren’t well served by the rigid learning environment of the school system, which excludes “probably a quarter of the population.”
One of her clients is Kevin Mardell, who this year won an award for exceptional learner achievement in an adult literacy program. When he came into the program three years ago he was withdrawn, could read well but was unable to write even a simple sentence, and couldn’t read his own writing.
“To call them ‘learning disabled’ implies something’s wrong with them,” Lee corrects. “There’s nothing wrong with them, they just learn differently. In my definition it’s someone who has normal intelligence and is not performing at their level of capacity.”
In Grade 7, Mardell was diagnosed with dyslexia and autism — a condition very much on the rise in Canada — and he learned how to read. He scraped through high school with the help of a classroom assistant and his mother, who fought to get an assistant for him. His reading took a steep learning curve: by the time he finished high school, he had read the Harry Potter series.
“I enjoyed learning but I had difficulties because I was socially awkward with people,” Mardell said. “I was the butt end of insults and jokes and bullying.”
Mardell is now 25. He is thoughtful and speaks slowly and articulately. “I don’t regret what’s happened to me in the past. It’s helped shape who I am.”
Once out of high school, he got himself a job in a bookstore, cleaning and stocking shelves.
“I have always enjoyed books and reading books even though I had difficulty reading,” he said. “It’s just something I think I’ve been born with.”
When the bookstore closed after a few years, he had trouble finding work and came to Project Literacy for help.
For about three years now, he has met with his tutor Jean — “religiously” she said — at least twice a week.
He thrives in the one-on-one learning environment. “One thing about autistic people,” she noted, “is that that they stay with something until it totally saturates them. He totally and absolutely studied spelling.”
When he started with Lee, Mardell couldn’t even write his own grocery list. Now, he’s writing stories and short essays and is starting to keep a journal. “I have a difficult time communicating and relating with people because I’m autistic,” Mardell admitted. “So another form of communication in relation to people opens more avenues for me.”
He’s got a new job at another bookstore now. This time, he’s dealing with customers, writing up orders, and is starting to work with the computer — an achievement in itself for a self-described technophobe who used to “overwhelm the computer” with his unique grammar and spelling.
“I can articulate my thoughts quite well,” says Mardell, “but putting them on paper was beyond me until quite recently. In doing this, it’s given me more confidence in myself.”
Bolstered by his successes, Mardell has set his sights on becoming a library technician. “I just don’t know if it’s practical ... yet, or ever. But its something in my mind.” Of his path so far, he mused: “I can’t see myself any more, the way I was before.”
Literacy workers love the stories of learners who make good, who overcome great odds and whose improved writing and reading skills springboard them to a better life. Working in a field that is often misunderstood and under-funded, they are sustained by those stories.
Barb Hagan is the executive director of Project Literacy Kelowna. Her raison d’etre is to advocate for continued community support and to raise money. To that end, she likes to invite reporters to meet the project’s success stories and she often brings them to fundraising events, knowing their positive stories encourage volunteering and funding support. Mardell is happy to help out and has spoken at a number of fundraisers.
Directors of community-based literacy programs — especially those not attached to colleges, like the one in Kelowna — need to have a mix of business savvy and creative chutzpah and Hagan, a former workplace literacy consultant and radio-jingle writer, has it in abundance.
Two weeks after she took the helm in Kelowna in 2006, the federal government yanked its literacy funding. The program — and many others across Canada — relied almost 100 per cent on that funding through Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC).
“It was like the Earth fell out from under my feet,” Hagan remembered, hanging her head. “At the time, we had no back-up plan. … It was always a year-to-year contract. HRDC contracts are always like that. But people get complacent and figure it’s always going to be there.”
She laid off everyone except the assessment consultant and reduced her own hours. She and the consultant took pay cuts of 40 per cent just to keep the doors open.
“Both of us felt so passionately about this organization and not letting it fall by the wayside, that we were willing to do pretty much anything to keep it going. And we did.”
She cut services to the bone and set about diversifying their funding model. Three years later, the $200,000 budget is still a bit of a patchwork. It relies on money from B.C. gaming grants, private foundations, fundraisers, the Rotary Club and many $5,000 and $10,000 donations, as well as the one federal contract for the trades program that employs Gaudet — but will not likely be extended past March 2009.
Businesses, she insists, have a vested interest in supporting literacy: “The bar is rising, definitely. We are a communications- and knowledge-based environment and economy.”
Level 2 learners — compared with those at Level 1 — are the ones most ready to move up and fill the worker gap created by B.C.’s thriving economy, as long as they get the help they need.
Though not a penny of her budget currently comes from provincial funding, she is writing proposals to the B.C. ministry of advanced education and labour market development — the main funder ($94.8 million) for adult literacy in the province — to rectify that. “I think it is the government’s obligation to contribute to organizations like ours,” she asserted. Advanced Education Minister Murray Coell says funding going directly to community adult learning programs has “more than tripled since 2001,” to a maximum of $40,000 per program, for a total of $2.4 million.
Everyone working in literacy in B.C. knows that, from a national perspective, the grass is currently greener here. There is, as University of Toronto literacy researcher Dr. Nancy Jackson puts it, “a golden halo” over the province.
The provincial government has set a goal of making B.C. the most literate jurisdiction in North America by 2015.
A program called Literacy Now Communities, a wing of 2010 Legacies Now, was launched in 2000 as part of the Vancouver bid for the Winter Games.
Leona Gadsby is director of community and adult literacy with the 2010 Legacies Now Society.
“The premier,” Gadsby said, “has established a grand vision for literacy in this province, though sometimes we wonder if that grand plan can be implemented.”
A long-time adult-literacy practitioner in B.C., Gadsby said sustainability is also a concern for her: “Lots of adult literacy programs, particularly those programs that happen more in the community context, are quite ad hoc and year to year and aren’t funded fully enough to be as effective as they could be.
“It’s a constant struggle to be thinking about how long they’ll stay in existence. And it would be really nice to get to point where we wouldn't need to worry about that any more.”
“We don’t know what funding will continue in the next years to come, but we’re hoping that by supporting communities to work together and develop partnerships, then at least that the legacy of collaboration and networking will continue,” Gadsby said.
Most not-for-profit fields are funded on a similar year-to-year basis, she noted, “but that doesn’t stop you from doing whatever work you can do now.” The benefit of having a “grand vision” like the premier’s, she said, “is that it inspires us to keep going and keep moving.”
Despite her own grand visions, Hagan admitted that she still finds her “cynical side” creeping out. “Does it go on beyond the election? Or the Olympic games? And is it really recognized as the hard core issue that it is? Or are we the flavour of the month again?” Hagan asked rhetorically, her desk piled with proposals in the works.
“I don’t know. I’ll take the money while it comes, but I won’t rely on it.”