P.E.I. literacy programs facing big funding reduction

TC Media newsroom@journalpioneer.com
Published on June 12, 2014

Two-year-old Sarah Rulhadi finds a good book to read at the P.E.I. Literacy Alliance Family Literacy Day celebrations on Saturday.

©Guardian photo by Mitch MacDonald

After Dianne Smith left high school to go to work she always had to have three jobs just to make ends meet.

She went back to school to make a better life for her family and got her GED the day before her 50th birthday.

“A big lump come in my throat and I’d have tears in my eyes. It may not be much to some people. To me it was the world,” she said.

Smith was able to get the help she needed thanks to the P.E.I. Literacy Alliance, but that organization will likely shut down soon because the federal government cut the roughly $150,000 it gives in core funding needed to keep the alliance running.

When Smith decided to do something about her poor literacy skills she underwent an assessment to see where she needed to start. She was then able to get a bursary through the literacy alliance and went to Spell-Read Canada for upgrading where she learned to break words down and sound them out.

Part of the reason Smith went back to school was to set an example for her kids.

“I couldn’t tell my children how important education was if I didn’t have it myself.”

Farming, picking tobacco, growing bean sprouts, cleaning houses and plucking feathers off wild geese from hunting camps were just some of the jobs Smith did over the years to support her family.

As she got older, the hard work stated to take its toll and Smith’s body couldn’t handle the labour she was doing just to get by.

“I knew I had to start working smarter, not harder.”

Thanks to her improved literacy skills, Smith started her own business in 2002 when she opened a seniors’ home in Charlottetown that employs 15 people, including her daughter.

“If I hadn't've got the education I wouldn’t be here,” she said.

But with federal funding ending as of June 30, the literacy alliance soon won’t be able to offer help to people like Smith because it will have to close its doors.

Catherine O’Bryan, the literacy alliance’s executive director, said that money was core funding used to keep the literacy alliance running and none of it was used for programming.

Without core funding, O’Bryan said the literacy alliance will only be able to operate for about six to nine months.

On a day when staff members were busy planning the organization’s charity golf tournament, O’Bryan said the literacy alliance couldn’t operate through donations alone because fundraising would be too time consuming.

“It’s a huge blow for us.”

This year fundraising efforts are paying for 26 tutors involved in the literacy alliance’s summer program and the organization is giving out 10 bursaries worth $750 along with three scholarships worth $1,500.

The alliance also works with government to promote literacy and gives out books through a book bank at the food bank and two book fridges full of free second-hand books.

O’Bryan said her group’s closure will mean there will be no one advocating for literacy in P.E.I., no more scholarships and no summer tutoring program.

With 48 per cent of Islanders struggling with literacy, O’Bryan sees a need for her organization.

“There’s won’t be a voice for adult learners.”

Those are adults like Smith who wasn’t happy to hear the news and said the alliance is an organization that helps a lot of people.

“I think it’s sad.”

P.E.I. Senator Catherine Callbeck says the federal cuts to literacy organizations has many of the groups up against the wall.

“They are now struggling with the hard choices that come with trying to keep the doors open with no funding,”she said.

Speaking in the Senate, she recently demanded answers from government on the funding cuts.