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A golden mission for Hamilton Literacy Council

The Hamilton Literacy Council is marking 50 years of empowering Hamiltonians with reading, writing and numeracy skills.

The Hamilton Literacy Council (HLC) is probably one of the best-kept secrets in the city. Even though nearly half of Canadian adults have inadequate literacy skills, most who are struggling don't advertise that they’re seeking – or have found – help. 

So much of the life-changing work that the HLC has done over the last half-century has stayed under the radar. 

HLC offers free training in reading, writing, and math to English-speaking adults in Hamilton. It also provides digital literacy training, including computer basics and iPads for seniors. To date, it has helped more than 11,000 Hamiltonians develop and improve their literacy skills. 

Poor reading, writing and numeracy skills among Canada’s adult population have created a literacy gap that has wide-ranging implications for our economy and democracy. The work the HLC does helps empower individuals, which in turn benefits their families and the wider community.  

This year marks the organization's 50th anniversary after incorporating as a registered non-profit in 1973. 

The HLC started as a grassroots movement focused on “literacy as a human right” and was mainly run by women from the local Lutheran church. From its tutors to its board members, the organization has always remained focused on volunteerism. It follows a popular “each one, teach one” mantra that says when someone learns how to read or write, it becomes their responsibility to teach someone else. The idea is to spread knowledge for the betterment of the community. 

Earlier this year, the HLC expanded operations and opened a second office at Upper Wentworth and Fennell to serve the Mountain (its primary office is in the YWCA Hamilton building on MacNab Street). 

The Hamilton Literacy Council has been helping English-speaking adults improve their reading, writing and numeracy skills since 1973.

The organization will mark 50 years of service with a celebration at The Gasworks in June that will pay tribute to the hard work of its 50 volunteer tutors as well as the accomplishments of its students. HLC will also launch a new website in June, which is being developed in partnership with Hamilton marketing agency Muse Marketing. 

The HLC’s offering is constantly evolving to meet Hamilton’s changing literacy needs. Their technological training, which started as a nice-to-have a decade ago, has now become a must-have for seniors and adults with low literacy in a world that has become dependent on technology. As Canada continues to grapple with low literacy rates and with the advent of artificial intelligence, the HLC is considering new courses focused on media literacy and artificial intelligence literacy programs. 

The Hamilton Literacy Council provides skills training for numerous 21st-century skills, including computers and numeracy.

HLC: Stories from the front lines

Rick Doelle, small group instructor

After a 40-year career working in the research department at ArcelorMittal Dofasco, Rick Doelle was nearing his retirement and considering his next move. By chance, he came across a post on the company notice board. The Hamilton Literacy Council (HLC) was looking for volunteer tutors.

As a trainer at Dofasco and a veteran scuba and fitness instructor, he knew he’d be a great fit for the role. What’s more, he liked the idea of helping others and transferring his knowledge. In 2011, he signed up as a volunteer tutor providing one-on-one reading and writing instruction to HLC students.

A year later, when the organization’s computer instructor took a leave of absence, Doelle stepped in to take her place and has been in the role ever since. For the last decade, he’s taught computer classes, introductory iPad training and budgeting workshops to small groups of students.

The classes offer a number of basic digital skills, from word processing, including creating Google Docs, and saving files to the cloud, to setting up a Gmail account and sending emails. Doelle also teaches his pupils how to type, use the internet, search for images, and look at grocery flyers to find deals on their weekly shop.

And since day one, his love of teaching has never waned.

“Sometimes people get that ‘a-ha!’ moment, and their eyes light up a bit. They get it. They understand what I’m trying to teach them,” says Doelle. “I get a certain personal satisfaction knowing that with the help and encouragement that I've given [my students], they’re able to do something that they weren't able, or they didn't think that they were able, to do before.”

HLC small group instructor Rick Doelle.

Tutored student - Zahra S.

Over 20 years ago, Zahra S. moved from Syria to Canada. She didn’t speak English well and lacked basic reading and writing skills. It wasn’t until 17 years later, while shopping in Jackson Square with a friend, that she heard about the services of the HLC.

Her friend, who was an HLC student about to graduate from the program, knew Zahra struggled with her own literacy skills. The HLC has a strong word-of-mouth referral system, and it’s how many new students get signed up for the program.

Zahra didn’t have time to attend school full-time as she was a caregiver for her disabled son, so the flexibility of the two-day-a-week classes worked with her schedule. Her goal was to develop her English reading, writing and speaking skills so she can one day get a job as a personal support worker (PSW).

Since enrolling in the HLC program three years ago, her literacy skills have improved dramatically. She’s much more confident speaking to her friends and family in English. She’s also learned how to send text messages in English on her phone and read in English – two things she couldn’t do before.

Zahra only wishes she had known about the HLC when she first arrived in Canada. She knows she’d be a lot more advanced than she is now. But she doesn’t let that hold her back.

“[I’m proud] of [how far I’ve come] from the day I started to where I am now,” says Zahra. “I really love [the HLC], and I recommend it to everybody I know.”

Small group students

The benefits of literacy skills are truly endless and impact all of us in ways we don’t even realize. One of those ways is in how we socialize and make friends. This is especially true for new Canadians who arrive in the country without strong English-speaking skills. They often find that they lack a shared language when trying to communicate with other new immigrants they meet.

That was the case for HLC students Ibtisam, Aliya and Samar, who emigrated to Canada from Sudan, Pakistan and Syria, respectively. They all started computer and literacy classes at the HLC in November. Each had a rudimentary understanding of English but was too shy to speak the language openly.

After just six months of HLC classes, each woman now speaks English confidently, without fear or embarrassment. More importantly, they can converse with each other, forging a bond and sharing experiences that have helped them to expand their social circle in a new country.

These new-found literacy skills allow them to experience life in new ways. Ibtisam travelled to the U.K. recently and wrote about her visit to a museum. Aliya researched everything about Hamilton at her local library and learned how to check out books and get answers to her questions from the librarians. Samar has travelled across Canada with a new confidence in her English skills, allowing her to enjoy everything the country has to offer.

“(HLC) changed my life in a big way,” says Ibtisam. “I was shy, but now I’ll say anything (in English), even if it’s wrong. I used to be scared of touching a computer, and now I know how to use it very well. I used to have to come to this class with my daughter, but now I’m confident to come alone.”

“I have more confidence now,” says Aliya. “I wanted to (get) a job, and I would think, ‘What can I do? How can I talk to them?’ But now I am satisfied I can talk and do a job very well.”

“Speaking English was the most important thing I learned,” said Samar. “ I was too shy to speak before.I wouldn’t talk at all. Now my skills are much better.”

If someone you know needs help with reading and writing, please contact info@hamiltonreads.ca. Click here to donate to the HLC. The HLC is also accepting new volunteers for the fall season.