Alien Messages: The bonds of literacy

September is Literacy Month, so we are having a little chat with Jessica Kalman, executive director, and Taylor Mills, program co-ordinator, at the Fort St. John Literacy Society.

Charo: "Being illiterate is like being inside of one of those glass water balls: You can see the world around you but you cannot connect at so many important levels. If you are a newcomer and you don’t speak the language of the place you live in, the isolation becomes even more daunting. You cannot communicate with your doctor, with your children’s teachers."

Jessica: "Indeed. We are very conscious about the disadvantages experienced by people with disabilities, but perhaps not so many people realize how incapacitating illiteracy can be, how isolating, not only with the basic services, but also with society in general. And there are currently approximately 700,000 British Columbians that have significant challenges with literacy — 45% of British Columbians aged 16 to 65 may have difficulty understanding newspapers, following instruction manuals, reading health information and other daily living tasks. 52% of British Columbians aged 16 to 65 may have difficulty calculating interest on a car loan, using information on a graph, calculating medicine dosage and other daily living tasks."

Kalpana: "Wow! That’s a lot of people! How does this problem impact our society in general?"

Jessica: "Literacy is important to all citizens, because it impacts every area of modern life: health care, civic engagement, education, employment and the economy in general. If people in Fort St. John have access to literacy, they have access to better jobs, better education, more opportunities. With literacy, we all win."

Charo: "Could you explain what services does the Fort St. John Literacy Society currently offer?"

Jessica: "The Fort St John Literacy Society is dedicated to delivering diverse community programming that promotes literacy and provides learning opportunities in a supportive setting. We teach free English as a second language classes in different levels to newcomers and we provide one-on-one tutoring for people who need literacy support."

Kalpana: "Well, I have personally attended those English as a Second Language lessons with you, Charo, as an instructor, and it was a great experience, not only for the language training, but because it was a networking space to feel at home and make new friends. Places like the Literacy Society really give immigrants that Welcome-to-Canada feeling. I remember your classes were filled with joy and laughter and sometimes, when people shared their stories and their wounds, they became a circle of support. The Literacy Society is always close to my heart."

Charo: "Yes, for all the staff at the Literacy Society, one of our main goals is to convey that welcome feeling, to make our classes a space for learning, socializing and opportunity. We want to tell everyone that Canada cares. And the proof is that the Canadian government supports this program, doesn’t it, Jessica?"

Jessica: "Yes. Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada and the provincial government through the Ministry of Jobs, Training and Technology have been two of our main funders. We have a dedicated volunteer board of directors governing the society and, of course, our staff, and a team of volunteers that we manage; by the way, I take this opportunity to thank them for their excellent work and to invite anyone who wants to volunteer their time for a meaningful cause that makes a difference in people’s lives. Please, join our team."

Charo: "Kofi Annan once said: 'Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope.' Do you believe this crossing can be achieved?"

Taylor: "Of course! I witness it every day. That’s the beauty of my job, to see how people start again to build up their futures from any stage in life and I feel privileged to be a part of the process. It is humbling to hear and witness so many survival stories where people lost everything and yet they kept building. We often take our lives for granted, but we should be very grateful for what we have. In my job, I can share the privilege of literacy with others, and that’s priceless."

Jessica: "We certainly believe and we work to make it happen. We have adult Canadians coming back to school, or learning to read because life got in the way and they never had the chance; and we have immigrants and refugees from many cultural and religious backgrounds becoming more familiar with English and Canadian culture."

Kalpana: "Can’t think of better journey companions."

Charo Lloret is from Spain; Kalpana Loganathan is from India. Both call Fort St. John home. Each week, they’ll reflect on their experiences immigrating to Canada and settling into their new homes in Fort St. John through a series of dialogues called Alien Messages.

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