UNFC literacy centre closes in on decade of learning

Sheila McMahon has seen the local United Native Friendship Centre’s literacy program go through a lot of changes since its inception 10 years ago.
Now executive director of the UNFC here, McMahon was the first literacy program co-ordinator.
“The first year I had 10 clients,” she said, noting the current UNFC building on Portage Avenue wasn’t available either.
Although the numbers have grown tremendously since that first year, the scope of the program has remained the same.
“Just to help people become literate,” summed up Mike Anderson, a staff member of the literacy centre.
“It’s increasing skill level so people can read and write better, either for daily life or for a [school] course,” he added. “We don’t do the course for them. We give them all the skills they need to do it.”
Anderson, along with Bonnie Huntley and Miranda Perrault, tutor and teach a wide range of clients from teenagers to adults. About 90 percent of the work they do is in English skills or even English as a second language but they also tutor in courses like Ojibway and math.
“We’re very flexible with when we can help a person,” Anderson said. “I could be working on a report and you could come in for help and I’ll just drop what I’m doing.
“And we’ll help anybody,” he stressed. “That’s the friendship centre’s motto–‘Through unity there is strength.’”
Since most clients are adults, Anderson said it was very important to provide learning materials that aren’t demeaning. McMahon said “Dick and Jane” books don’t cut the mustard for someone who’s 35.
“You have to make them feel good about what they’re doing,” she said, stressing you have to meet the client’s needs for effective teaching.
“We’re working with adults, therefore, we give them materials adults need,” echoed Anderson.
Anderson also helps inmates at the Fort Frances Jail to improve their reading skills.
“I find the ones who really want to learn learn,” he said. “The ones that don’t tend to fizzle out.”
Perrault’s special project is compiling a local history of the Ojibway people, which is set to go to the printers March 1. She’s been interviewing elders and other people from the local bands.
“I’m going to include personal stories, and have literacy exercises in the book,” she said.
Meanwhile, Huntley is preparing to do some field tests in order to put a program together for people with dyslexia.
“There are three different categories of dyslexia,” she said. “Depending on which category they are tells you where to start [from a tutoring aspect].
“Even though the dyslexics have a different way of thinking, a different way of seeing things, everyone without dyslexia can tap into that mindset,” she added.
But the real fulfillment of the job comes from their everyday work with clients.
“I enjoy working with people,” Perrault said. “I’m just glad I can help them with literacy skills.”
“At times, when you work with someone and they don’t seem to be improving, that can be frustrating,” Huntley remarked. “But when you’ve been working with a client so long and finally they just understand–it feels good.”