Kelowna's Project Literacy celebrates 25 years of service with a party for tutors

Project Literacy volunteer Graham Bell is helping Phuong Pham brush up on her service industry language skills so she can serve at Hanna
Project Literacy volunteer Graham Bell is helping Phuong Pham brush up on her service industry language skills so she can serve at Hanna's Lounge & Grille on the waterfront. Pham is from Vietnam. Below: This Joyce Quillian painting will be auctioned off with a minimum bid set at $2000; her paintings go for up to $5000.
— image credit: Contributed

Project Literacy is celebrating a major milestone. The successful non-profit has hit the quarter-life mark, ready to commemorate 25 years of resolving literacy issues.

Founded by concerned community members who felt adults needed a place to improve on reading, writing and math skills, it’s grown from a tiny operation in the Laurel Packinghouse to one of the community’s staple social supports. And this June it will return to it's old haunt for a party to celebrate the tutors unending dedication.

“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 executive director, said in interview from its Bernard Avenue offices.

Altogether, 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 said the numbers belie its very humble roots and the countless people helped along the way.

Operating on a shoestring budget, cobbled together from small government grants and private citizens' donations, the first 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 already 11 years old 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.”

Warnock credits the move to a community-based literacy organization to Maxine Veach, who initially ran 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 the necessary scraps of funding to keep the project running.

It didn’t take long before 30 to 40 tutors were involved and, while that dedicated army does ebb and flow, today it's roughly double the size.

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 partnerships for over 10 years. “We have tutors of every age and from every walk of life. It’s an incredible place.”

As Project Literacy continued to grow, the program began helping younger clients, acting as a backup for the Central Okanagan School District's Central School students who have slipped from the mainstream school system. Tutoring is available to them during the summer or after school to ensure all the extra help needed is available.

Project Literacy 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.

Joyce QuillianJessi Mackenzie, 46, said her tutor, Bonnie Girourard, is helping her make a major life change that seemed impossible far more 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 will be held June 8 at the Laurel Packinghouse, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $40, available at Project Literacy, 205-591 Bernard Ave, phone 250-762-2163 or at Mosiac Books on Bernard Ave.

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