International Volunteer Day is coming up! In order to celebrate, I’m posting an article I wrote for Youth Challenge International last year – it was with them that I received the opportunity to volunteer in Guyana, South America. I was there for three months in a village called St. Cuthbert’s Mission. Since my return, I’ve tried to remain in the volunteering world through various organizations including English Language Tutoring in the Ottawa Community and with The Kidney Foundation.
Reading has always been a great love of mine ever since my grandmother taught me to read when I was three years old. As I got older, my companions changed from Amelia Bedelia and the Bernstein Bears to the oddities of Goosebumps. When my parents dragged me to dinner parties, I didn’t mind too much as the Famous Five were dragged right along with me. In high school and then university, my strong reading and writing skills served me well. However, it was not until after university that I truly started to realize how lucky I was to have strong literacy skills. My family has always valued reading and education, both of which are imperative for literacy development. Not everyone has the opportunity for either, much less both, during their lives.
The definition of literacy varies according to context; however, its core meaning is the ability to read critically and to write coherently. Globally, low literacy rates can impede the economic development of a country, in a world that is rapidly changing and is increasingly dependent on technology. Socially, literacy is linked to career success, decent wages, and quality of life. A person with low literacy is less likely to find good employment, obtain safe working conditions, or secure a reasonable wage. Low literacy means little access to or understanding of rights as a worker or even as a human being. Literacy even impacts whether a parent could understand the directions on over the counter drug labels or if an employee could comprehend the information in an occupational health and safety handout given at a new job.
Low literacy rates are a problem all around the world, both in the Global North and the Global South. In 2011, I decided to experience literacy in the Global South. I volunteered with Youth Challenge International (YCI) from January 9th to April 2nd in St. Cuthbert’s Mission, an Amerindian village two hours south of Georgetown, Guyana. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), both Canada and Guyana have an official literacy rate of 99%. However, in my experience, this does not reflect reality – neither in Guyana nor in Canada. Literacy goes beyond the ability to write the alphabet and to read words off a page – which, might account for UNDP’s official literacy rate. During my three months in St. Cuthbert’s Mission, my main task was to teach English literature to grades seven, eight, and nine students as well as to provide remedial literacy to grades three, seven, and eight students. It was quickly evident why strong literacy is difficult to achieve in this particular community: there is a severe lack of supplies/books, a lack of teachers (and those that are there are untrained in literacy/phonics methods), huge class sizes, undiagnosed learning disabilities in the students, little emphasis on the importance of literacy, and a host of other social issues. Until all of these impediments to literacy are addressed, true literacy rather than basic functional literacy cannot be achieved.
Over 40% of the Canadian population has a literacy rate below the minimum level required to function well at work and daily living according to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. The percentage remains about the same even when you do not take new immigrants into consideration. At least where literacy is concerned, I have realized that I do not need to travel overseas to contribute to the improvement of a person or group. Today, I volunteer for English Language Tutoring for the Ottawa Community (ELTOC). My current student is a middle-aged Middle Eastern woman who has never had the opportunity for formal schooling in her native country. As her tutor, I am teaching her how to read and write and on occasion, I share my own experiences as an immigrant to Canada, something we have in common. My experience in Guyana taught me compassion and understanding for those struggling to learn and reiterated the importance of literacy to basic life skills and overall well-being. My goal for my student is that she develops the skills to speak English fluently, to read critically, and to write coherently. My hope is that those of us who possess good literacy skills would choose to pass on our knowledge, one student at a time. In this way, one day we can make UNDP’s 99% truly reflect reality.
Question: What global issue(s) are important to you?