Article by Jason Setnyk. Submitted Photo.
Cornwall Ontario — Dina McGowan is the Executive Director of Tri-County (Stormont, Dundas, Glengarry) Literacy Council. Dina, the youngest of 7 children is originally from Toronto and moved to Cornwall in 1986. Dina graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Education degree in 1979. Her work experience includes customer service, retail, teaching in various educational settings and her work at Tri-County Literacy Council. Dina has always been actively involved in her community. During her youth she established and chaired a large tenant association that produced a newspaper for over 500 residents. Community involvement drove Dina to become a co-founder of the Tri-County Literacy Council.
The agency was established in 1986. It was the brain child of T.R. Leger Alternative School and St. Lawrence College. Dina wrote the first grant that produced $5,400 and along with a learner who owned local real estate and who had difficulty with reading and writing, she established the first office across from the Cornwall General Hospital. The learner donated the first office space in exchange for tutoring services. Today, the agency is located at 101 Second Street West (across from Time Square) and it serves individuals who require literacy and essential skills for home, work and/or play. The agency grew from serving 10 learners in its first year to accommodating in excess of 400 adult/child learners this year. Together with paid staff and countless volunteers the agency works to grow its community by making meaningful differences in the lives of the people it serves.
1 – What is illiteracy, and how might that differ from people’s perceptions and preconceived notions?
The dictionary defines literacy as the ability to read and write. The Canadian government for many years defined it as the ability to use printed material in various settings. More recently, the Government teamed with Canadian Business and determined there are additional essential skills necessary for success at home, work and /or play. They identified nine skills. These include reading, writing and numeracy, as well as, document use, thinking skills, oral communication, working with others, digital technology and continuous learning. These skills provide the foundation for learning all other skills. In spite of the expanding definition of literacy, many people still think of it as reading and writing. They define illiteracy as the inability to read and write. This is a myth for the most part. It is a rarity today to see persons who cannot read and write. Most people can. However, they do so at different levels and if the level they are functioning at is negatively impacting their family, work or everyday life then they are illiterate to some extent. For example, if I cannot get a job because of difficulty with problem solving, organizational skills and/or lack of computer skills, then my literacy skills are in need of upgrading. People also believe there are few persons with literacy challenges. The statistics kept by Tri-County Literacy Council tell us differently. The good news is the agency is challenged with high demand. This means people are seeking help and we know they recognize the importance of continuous learning if even just to maintain a job. People’s perceptions of literacy are changing. This is a good thing for our community.
2 – Describe what programs are available at Tri County Literacy Council to help our community?
Tri-County Literacy responds to community needs. To do so it networks with most every agency and it researches what community reports identify as needs. For example, when the City announced the arrival of warehouses, the agency immediately introduced a “Material Handler” course. It offers a number of occupational courses that focus on the development of essential skills. Other programs include confidential one-on-one tutoring, small group literacy, digital technology classes and an after school program for children from kindergarten to grade 8. There are many volunteer opportunities including office assistance and tutoring in the various programs. The agency is challenged by space and therefore it is advisable for persons to call the agency at 613-932-7161 to make an appointment regarding learning and/or volunteer opportunities. First Stop Assessment offers free educational assessments to determining learning levels, styles, needs etc. This service is offered in partnership with T.R. Leger Alternative School, St. Lawrence College, Job Zone D’Emploi and Ontario Works.
3 – What challenges does Cornwall face in regards to literacy, and how important is literacy to Cornwall’s economic development?
Literacy is essential to a community’s economic development whether it is Cornwall, Toronto etc. At one time a literate individual was one who could read or write. It did not matter to what extent. Today’s definition includes the nine essential skills that are assigned levels beginning with easier tasks to more complicated tasks. When this expanded definition is draped across populations, countries find that even more persons than anticipated, have poor literacy skills. This includes the City of Cornwall. Using a traditional definition of literacy as in the case of Statistics Canada (it uses completion of grade levels) we find that Cornwall ranks below provincial averages. In terms of economic development it means that we need to increase our upgrading programs to continually create a viable workforce. Cornwall, like any city is striving for sustained economic growth. To do so, it must create a workforce with the skills required to meet an ever changing economy, and therefore, it is important we ensure our economy is diversified. Companies research an area prior to setting up business. Among the many items they investigate, is details concerning a workforce. If the workforce is unskilled, and it is skilled labour they need, they move on. We must be careful in Cornwall that literacy issues are never used as an excuse for business to set up in our community thinking they can pay lower wages. We have a wonderful post secondary institution, perhaps a university is in the future. In the meantime, we also have a large segment of the population who require upgrading beginning with literacy and essential skills. We cannot forget this population as statistics show they are young and able to contribute to growing our economy. You cannot separate literacy and economy. One only has to look at underdeveloped countries to understand how critical literacy is to keeping a nation free, strong and independent.
4 – What are the biggest challenges that Tri County Literacy Council faces as an organization and how are you meeting those challenges?
The organization faces two very serious challenges. One is the demand for service. More and more people are recognizing the need for increased skills whether it is for home, work or play. There has been a sizeable increase in the number of persons who wish to journey on an employment goal path. Ontario Works and Job Zone D’Emploi are extremely vigilant in recognizing literacy and essential skill needs. Referrals have tripled over the last few years. We want this to occur, however the agency has extremely limited funds. In fact, it has fewer dollars today than it did 10-12 years ago when funders had more dollars to share. My wish is that more people will visit the centre, to see first- hand the tremendous contribution the agency is making to the community with so little resources. Most people have no idea that in this year (April 2012- March 2013 Tri-County Literacy Council served 533 individuals. We wrote adult literacy curriculum, and we introduced many government changes. We continually analyze how we do business and how best we can respond to our community’s needs. There is only so much you can do with limited resources. The agency is at its limit. We need “heroes” to come forward who will take literacy up as a challenge so as to make our community an even better place to work and grow. People with literacy challenges are often too embarrassed and ashamed to put their face to this cause. We need others to do it for us? We hope our community will respond in order we never have to turn people away who desire to learn.
5 – What is your philosophy on literacy and education?
I believe in freedom and I believe that literacy is the key to democracy. I believe that every adult and child is unique and in order to reach their fullest potential they must be provided with learning opportunities that are stimulating and conducted in an environment that is safe, supportive, inviting and where mistakes are viewed as a springboard to further learning. I believe in tolerance and the sharing of ideas. I believe my job as an educator is to instill in others a love of learning and a desire to succeed. If we pay it forward, democracy will remain alive.
Thank you Dina McGowan for this interview. The Seeker would like to congratulate you, the staff, and volunteers of Tri-County Literacy Council on the wonderful work you do.