Opening a whole new world
Berniece Gowan has been working in adult literacy and learning for the past 17 years. She ran Taking Shelter with Literacy, the literacy program in agencies and shelters, when she was working for Literacy Alberta.
Simultaneously, the School of Foundational Learning at the College had been offering Lifeline to Literacy, a low risk, no-fee course for adults with literacy skills gaps. The course at that time taught basic reading, writing, math, and computer skills.
But as Calgary fell into the economic downturn, the course’s numbers fell too. Its participants struggled with getting enough food, finding housing, and staying healthy. Many of them couldn’t make literacy a priority anymore.
Instead of closing the course, Berniece – who joined the College in 2013 as project manager for the Adult Literacy and Essential Skills Research Institute – visited the idea of taking Lifeline to Literacy into the community. She and her team consulted research that linked homelessness and low literacy rates, and stated the importance of making literacy opportunities available to those who need them most. They also worked very closely with the course’s grant funder, Calgary Learns, before making a decision. Berniece and Debra King, the Lifeline to Literacy instructor, began to connect with agencies with a focus on homeless shelters.
In the fall of 2016, Berniece and Debra introduced the first Lifeline to Literacy in Community course at the Alex HomeBase. The staff at the Alex have since noticed a measurable difference in participants’ self-esteem and their ability to communicate. By the fall of 2017, courses had begun at the Mustard Seed and the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre, which neighbours the College. Courses continue to run at these three agencies with the partial funding of Calgary Learns.
“We are providing a safe, supported and accessible opportunity for these learners to practice literacy skills and identify where in their lives literacy skills challenges create barriers for them,” says Berniece. “They may never decide to step back into a learning environment in a more formal way, but we’re giving them a space to think of themselves as learners. We are also working with these agencies, offering literacy awareness training for staff. Both parts of this project can make a difference.”