Project Literacy is celebrating 25 years of resolving literacy issues.
Founded by community members who felt adults needed a place to improve their reading, writing and math skills, it’s grown from a tiny operation in the Laurel Packinghouse to a staple social support in the community.
“In general, we have two major groups. There are those who are upgrading in order to qualify for more education, and those who want to improve employment opportunities. And then there’s the third group who are working on English as another language,” Blair Lischeron, Project Literacy’s executive director said in his Bernard Avenue offices.
Lischeron’s figures show more than 100 tutor-and-student pairings meet each month for lessons.
Diana and Rod Warnock were among the founding directors—Diana acting as a tutor and director—and both say those numbers show it’s light years from where it all began.
Operating on a shoestring budget, cobbled together from small grants and donations, the clients were often teetered on the brink of horrific lives, struggling to survive without showing the world they could not read or write.
“One lady was from a Doukhobor family. I was in my forties at the time and she was already 60-plus. Her parents had been jailed in the Kootenays and the kids were farmed out to foster homes within the community, so she never really got to go to school at all. When they tried to do something about that, she was 11 and they put her back in Grade 1. It was such a traumatic thing for her,” said Diana Warnock.
“She was probably the one who I really, really got attached to. She was so smart and learned so quickly and was just so excited to be able to read to her grandchildren. It just transformed her life.”
The move to create a community-based literacy organization was spearheaded by Maxine Veach, who was running a literacy service out of the Okanagan College.
“Particularly young men, by the time they reached 30, 35 years old, they would realize they couldn’t move forward, couldn’t apply for a higher job or be moved on unless they could do something about their reading,” said Warnock. “They were coming in so desperate and we were literally getting them off the street.”
Both the Warnocks and Veach had sons with learning difficulties, so they felt a personal connection to the cause and worked very hard to find scraps of funding to keep the project running.
It didn’t take long before 30 to 40 tutors were involved.
Tutors at Project Literacy are all volunteers who willingly to dedicate an average of four to five hours per week to ensuring the students get the best education available.
“It’s just amazing. I can’t say enough about our tutors,” said Elaine Johnston, who has set up the tutor/learner pairings for over 10 years.
“We have tutors of every age and from every walk of life. It’s an incredible place.”
Today, the program also helps some younger clients, acting as a backup for Central School students who have slipped from the mainstream school system, tutoring them during the summer or after school.
The tutors typically go above and beyond the call of duty, making extraordinary the norm.
Marianne Boctor, an engineer from Egypt who has just returned to home for a visit, is tutoring her math students via Skype to ensure they don’t fall behind.
Jessi Mackenzie, 46, said her tutor, Bonnie Girourard, is helping her make a major life change that seemed impossible seem manageable as she studies for the Language Proficiency Test. She needs the LPI in order to get into her program for sterilizing medical instruments.
“It’s been 30 years since I was in school,” said Mackenzie, who worked in the hospitality industry.
“With all the texting and abbreviating and getting into bad habits, I just need to get back in the swing of things.”
There are payoffs for the tutors as well. Alex Carr, an English as another language and math tutor, has personally helped two people get through math exams they couldn’t fathom passing prior to connecting with the organization.
One student will go into education and the other into business.
“I get to meet people from all over the world and we get into the most interesting conversations,” he said, noting he has met learners from Ghana, Fiji, Korea, China, Japan and India.
According to the Canadian Council on Learning, 48 per cent of the adult population in Canada is considered to have below-standard literacy skills—and the figure is expected to grow.
Like most non-profits, Project Literacy is constantly looking for grants, donations and other sources of funding, so the organizers are also hoping to raise money by auctioning a painting done by Canadian artist Joyce Quillian. Her husband is a tutor.
The event is June 8 at the Laurel Packinghouse in Kelowna from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $40 from Project Literacy, 205-591 Bernard Ave, 250-762-2163, or at Mosiac Books on Bernard Ave.