What is literacy?

The News' editor Susan Quinn takes explores the ever growing crisis facing adult literacy in Port Alberni.

What is literacy?

FIrst of a series

The lifeblood of adult literacy in the Alberni Valley is found in a cheerily painted warren of rooms in the former Klitsa School, centred in a neighbourhood on Tebo Avenue that is evolving with growth.

The front desk, where executive assistant Alana Bodnar sits, is painted with a bright mural of buildings that speaks of home to a visitor. Further into the building are a lunchroom where monthly coffee celebrations are held, three classrooms, a computer lab and a tutoring lab.

Executive director Charmead Schella’s office is open and welcoming, fronted with floor to ceiling glass walls and doors on one side, and bookshelves loaded with books for the community on all others.

It is in this building where people who are passionate about literacy try to find solutions. It is a monumental task at times: the illiteracy rate in Port Alberni is 41 per cent, demand has never been greater and both federal and provincial funding has been declining steadily.

“It is precarious. It is day to day at times,” says Schella. (pictured below)

Schella spends a large amount of time seeking grants, writing grant proposals and forging partnerships within the government and corporate communities in the Alberni Valley, all just to keep the centre going.

“We literally live hand to mouth because there is so little funding,” she says.

Literacy Alberni has an annual operating budget of $250,000, of which $9,500 last year came through the BC-based Decoda Literacy Solutions, and $77,000 through the Raise a Reader campaign.

The list of partnerships and funding sources that also contribute to the annual operating budget is difficult to track. Literacy Alberni is both the literacy organization and the newcomers’ centre for people who have immigrated to Canada via Port Alberni, so it has in the past received funding through Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

“We also rely heavily as well on donations and small funding pots, local and municipal ones as well as partnerships in the community,” says Schella.

For example, the Nuu-chah-nulth Employment and Training Program, which allows Literacy Alberni to offer community outreach programs to the Ditidaht First Nation.

“School District 70 is one of our biggest allies,” says Schella, including members who sit on the volunteer board. Literacy Alberni funds the “Welcome to Kindergarten” book bag program for new students and in return gets in-kind time from a teacher from VAST alternative program.

They partner with North Island College for adult basic education, they offer a nutritional literacy program, facilitate Parents As Literacy Supporters (PALS), and more.

“I spend a lot of my time looking for and applying for grants. I spend a lot of time reporting on what we’ve done with the funds we’ve received,” she says. “I’m not going to lie, sometimes it’s absolutely exhausting. The need is so great for literacy in this community that you just carry on.

“For us, it’s not the reading, writing and numeracy. Literacy is the foundational block of a healthy community. We look for funding support through that lens.”

Literacy organizations around the province are primarily volunteer-driven, including many of the tutors. Literacy Alberni has two full-time and two part-time employees, some of whom work for the fee-for-service Klitsa Tutoring.

Because they rely so heavily on grants, Schella has become quite creative with the cross-connections and partnerships to ease some of the burden. “We definitely try to think outside the box to be eligible for grants that we might not be if we regarded ourselves within the traditional literacy box.”

(A good example of that was applying for Alberni Valley Community Forest funding for a little libraries project that will ultimately see 25 portable libraries placed around the community for people to access books.)

The overarching fear is losing core funding.

This kind of funding helps literacy centres get from one grant to the next without too many speed bumps. Victoria’s literacy centre fell into that trap in the summer of 2014 and was forced to close its doors after 26 years in the province’s capital. “They didn’t have enough bridge funding,” Schella said.

The Victoria centre has since re-opened, thanks to renewed funding.

Schella’s story is not unique. Joan Exley, literacy outreach coordinator for the Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy in Nelson, BC has created successful literacy programs like Learning Place through community partnerships.

“Literacy work in communities is built on collaboration across the province,” Exley said during a Literacy is Life keynote address. “Partners coming together to create opportunities…when we all work together, there are bridges in communities for people to walk across.”

Provincial funding comes through Decoda Literacy Solutions, which in 2015 received approximately $2 million to distribute among 400 communities in British Columbia. Last year Literacy Alberni received $9,500 in provincial funding.

(Decoda also fundraises for its programs; in 2014 it launched the Literacy is Life program.)

Decoda CEO Brenda Le Clair gives credit to grassroots community organizations like Literacy Alberni for keeping literacy at the forefront. “It’s the boots on the ground that actually do the work,” Le Clair said last year following the Literacy is Life launch.

“These to me are the real heroes of literacy.”


Next week: Meet two Alberni Valley learners who have found a successful literacy strategy despite the challenges Port Alberni as a community faces with its literacy numbers.



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