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CITY VIEW: Closing the book

Helen McLeod is hanging up her hat as executive director of the Hamilton Literacy Council (HLC) this year, after more than a decade in the role.

After more than a decade in the role, Helen McLeod is hanging up her hat as executive director of the Hamilton Literacy Council (HLC) this year. A champion of literacy for nearly 25 years, in 2013, Helen received YMCA’s Women of Distinction Award in Hamilton, thanks to her tireless advocacy for literacy education. She has left an enormous mark on the Hamilton community, helping to raise significant funding for HLC’s programming throughout her tenure. As she looks back on her long and illustrious career, McLeod hopes to find a new leader to take the helm of this vital community-based non-profit that provides life-changing reading and writing skills to adults across the city.   

Tell us about the Hamilton Literacy Council and the work it does.

The Hamilton Literacy Council helps adults who are struggling with reading, writing, math, and now, digital technology. And that struggle is stopping them from living the life that they want to lead and (being) the person that they want to be. 

The Hamilton Literacy Council provides the opportunity for those people to get private, confidential, one-to-one tutoring or group training, with flexible timing. It gives them the opportunity to develop those skills, at their own pace, with lots of support. And it's free. Each person has an individual plan to fast-track them while they develop these skills.

Where were you born and raised?

Funny enough, I was born in Hamilton, Scotland. My parents emigrated to Canada when I was three. We lived on the West Island in Montreal and I went to St. George Williams University (now called Concordia) and got my bachelor’s of commerce. After graduating, I got a job with the federal government and went to Ottawa for training. For part of my training, I ended up spending some time in Hamilton, and stayed for a couple of weeks at the Royal Connaught. And I really liked Hamilton. So (my husband and I) ended up moving here. 

I was working for Revenue Canada on a managerial track. It was good-paying work, but I didn't love it. When I came home at night, I wasn't happy with my work. We wanted to get a house and raise a family but we couldn't afford to do it in Hamilton. I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom; that was part of our plan. We ended up finding a place in Caledonia that we could afford. But my husband wanted to live in the country and get a bigger property, so we moved out to Onondaga, near the Six Nations Reserve. And then when my two boys grew up and my husband retired, we came back to Hamilton.

 How did you get started with the Hamilton Literacy Council?

I started out as a part-time instructor for the Haldimand Norfolk Literacy Council. Then, the Hamilton Literacy Council was hiring. I signed up for that and started teaching classes. And then the demand for small group classes really grew. So, I started working full-time for the Hamilton Literacy Council in 2001. 

I started as an instructor, and then afterwards, I became the tutor coordinator and small group coordinator. And then when the previous executive director left, I took the position in 2012. Reluctantly. (Because) you're just that much further removed from the students. It's so inspiring to work directly with the students and tutors. And I have a fantastic staff. They're just incredible. I do still stay involved as much as I can. But it is a step removed. There's a certain kind of bond that you develop with the students, whether it's in the classroom, one-to-one, or when they achieve something, it's just touching. You get so many pride moments, and so many things to celebrate.

Helen McLeod is retiring after more than a decade as executive director of the Hamilton Literacy Council (HLC).
PHOTO: Charles Leonio for HCM

What is your greatest memory from your time at HLC?

In 2013, the board of directors nominated me for the YMCA Women of Distinction award in Hamilton in the field of education. It was just wonderful that the board put together this nomination. At that time, I was doing a lot of work in literacy, not only in Hamilton but on different boards and going to the prison (to teach literacy skills). I used to do all the assessments in the jail, and I used to get people set up with some books so they could work independently and then afterwards, work with probation and parole. 

I was really touched that the board did that. And it was a huge honour when the YWCA picked me for that because it was a really tight field. Hamilton is a kind of education city. There are so many people who are so qualified. It blew me away. 

What is the greatest satisfaction or pride in the work you do?

Changing people's lives. Gaining literacy skills is life-changing, there's no doubt about it. It opens up the world. And with most of our students there are very tangible results, very practical things that people can do (with these skills). It's not just that you're helping them feel better about themselves, which is good, but also hard to kind of measure. But with literacy skills, you can see the difference in people's lives, that's the most rewarding thing, just hearing about those results. 

Who inspires you?

I'm really inspired by the people that I work with, by my staff, by the students, by the board. And even the whole literacy community, it's just a good place to work, because it brings hope to everybody. We're training the people that we’re helping, but also, the more people that are literate, the better the world will be. You're more educated. The more understanding we have (means) life is better all around. I'm inspired by people who don't just accept their lot in life but decide that I can do something about this.

How would you describe Hamilton as a place to live and work?

I kind of think of it as an everyman place. It's got good bones. It's got everything. It's maybe not the prettiest city. Certainly not the cleanest city. It's got a lot of problems, but it's got good bones, and it's got good heart. It's a very friendly place. I love that about it. I absolutely love the way we've kept nature close by, there are so many walking trails. And the RBG; it’s amazing to have that on our doorstep. 

Helen McLeod has championed literacy for nearly 25 years and has earned a YMCA Women of Distinction award.
PHOTO: Charles Leonio for HCM

What is an artistic or cultural experience you’ve had in the city that stands out for you?

I'm going to say Telling Tales. I was there when they started Telling Tales from the very beginning. Seeing the children, a new generation of readers and the love of reading and being with all those people. That's my favourite cultural event. And I think even after I leave (the HLC), I think I'll be volunteering at Telling Tales, for sure, because I just love that connection. 

What neighbourhood do you live in, and what do you love about it?

I live in Birdland (the Bruleville neighbourhood on the central Mountain), and I love it because I can walk to absolutely everything. Anything I want is within walking distance: shopping, the trails. There's also a great mix of different housing. It's safe at night and well-lit. I have no problem walking the dog (she fosters dogs for Guide Dogs of Canada) at midnight. 

What’s your favourite restaurant in the city?

I’m a plant-based eater, and I love Planted. I've gone there many times, and there's nothing on their menu that I don't like. And the Hearty Hooligan on Ottawa Street. They have amazing food if you're in the mood for fast food.  And, of course, Democracy is really good. 

Hamilton needs less of...?

Litter. I sometimes feel like I live in a trash town. When somebody comes to visit, I always feel so embarrassed. Like, there's so much to see. But while you're looking at it, you're going to have to look past all this litter.

Hamilton needs more of...?

In that same vein, pride of place. People should feel this is their home. This added responsibility of caretaker. We need people who care and take responsibility and are proud of Hamilton. And obviously, we could use more money. 

What are you most looking forward to about retirement?

I'm definitely going to be looking at spending more time with my grandkids and family. I want to learn some new hobbies. I want to take some courses at McMaster that are free for seniors. Maybe I'll learn about birds. And I think I'd like to learn more about history. I'll be volunteering somewhere, for sure. I’d like to foster dogs with the SPCA. I'd like to see Ireland. And take a riverboat cruise through the Danube. I'd like to see that.

Vanessa Green is a member of the board of the Hamilton Literacy Council, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2023.