The ability to read is something that many people take for granted. But 20 per cent of Canada’s population is unable to read above a Grade 7 level, and literacy programs are a vital part of helping those millions get by.
“They find they don’t have the skills to get a promotion at work, or to keep up with technology because they can’t read the manuals,” said Linda Steward, Creston’s Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy (CBAL) co-ordinator.
CBAL has been around since 2002, and is in 17 East and West Kootenay communities, with co-ordinators working from September to June. Prior to its creation, literacy programs were independent in those regions.
“Some very wise women realized it made sense to form an alliance of literacy groups,” said Steward, who has served Creston since 2003.
The alliance is currently in the third year of a three-year funding guarantee from the Columbia Basin Trust, and also receives funds from the provincial and federal governments, Decoda Literacy Solutions and the College of the Rockies, which gives Creston a $69,000 operating budget.
Steward said she is a “huge reader” and has loved the fantasy genre since she was a teenager. She was raised in Ottawa, spent her late teens in Valemount, B.C., and was in Calgary for 14 years before moving to Creston in 2002.
While literacy issues affect all ages, she is most drawn to adult literacy, which suits Creston’s needs. Children from birth to six are well served by other programs, and funding isn’t readily available for school-age children’s programs.
The CBT funding allows Steward to hire tutors – eight in the past year – to run adult programs, which include both improving reading skills and learning English as a second language. Twenty-two people are currently enrolled in the ESL program, which helps them with more than just the language.
“They not only learning, but they’re finding support and friendship,” said Steward. “Creston is very welcoming to newcomers.”
Through CBAL, Steward has helped Creston Valley residents to explore various forms of literacy; hers was one of the first CBAL branches to take computer courses to rural communities, including Yahk.
“By offering the courses out there, we’re reaching people we wouldn’t otherwise be able to,” she said.
Steward has also offered songwriting and graphic novel workshops, and the videography workshop and poetry slam she organized both took on lives of their own.
The video project was taken over by the College of the Rockies’ Creston campus before growing into the Creston Film Group, and the poetry slam was taken over by the Snoring Sasquatch arts house.
“One thing, we’re not is territorial,” said Steward. “We can accomplish a lot more by pooling resources and experience than we can in isolation.”
And if future collaborations can continue to grow and encourage literacy throughout the Creston Valley, Steward will be pleased.
“I like to think of it as a literacy incubation organization,” she said.