Sharing the precious gift of literacy

Left, Helena Martens, Jaime Friesen-Pankratz and Else Siemens. (GREG VANDERMEULEN/Winkler Times)

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Students have become teachers for a Regional Connections family literacy course.
The six week program puts teachers into the homes of newcomers who need literacy support. For the first time, instructors have been hired from students nearing completion of the Level 3 literacy program at Regional Connections.
Adult Literacy Facilitator Jaime Friesen-Pankratz said the program is about improving literacy in the home.
“Our program got a grant to start doing literacy awareness… in people’s homes,” she said. “I thought, what better opportunity for our literacy students to put their skill to use.”
Helena Martens and Else Siemens are both from Bolivia and are nearing completion of the Level 3 program at Regional Connections.
“They are able to establish trust very quickly,” Friesen-Pankratz said. “They’re able to use their first language and are able to kind of lead by example.”
The family style literacy education isn’t brand new to the centre, but it has depended on funding. That means it’s not a constant program. Funding for this six week session comes from the Winnipeg Foundation.
This is the first time that students are taking the lead.
“In the past what we’ve done is just hire a facilitator from among us teachers, or from outside to come in and do this work with families,” she said. “This year was the first year that we’ve had the idea to actually have our students go out and be those adult literacy facilitators, so that part is a new idea which we’re very excited about.”
Friesen-Pankratz said that allows the families to see people who share similar experiences and speak the same language.
“Just being able to connect on the language level I think is huge,” she said.
Five families are part of this program, with four of Low German background and one family of Syrian refugees.
Helena Martens and her family moved to Canada from Bolivia in 2014, although she had been here before. She said the literacy training has helped her immensely.
“Communication in English is easier,” she said. “I know it’s sometimes very mixed, but it’s easier to communicate in English and easier to make friends.”
“I’m able to read to my son,” she added.
Martens said she is happy to be able to give families the kind of help she wished she had.
“I once was new to Canada,” she said. “I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know how to read in English and I didn’t know how important the early reading to children is.”
“If there had been someone for me like that, I would have appreciated it,” she said. “I just felt that’s something I can do now for newcomers here and I enjoy it.”
Else Siemens came to Canada in 2011 from Bolivia and said they made the move so her daughter could have the benefits of a good education and extra help from EAs. “They didn’t have EAs in Bolivia,” she said. “There was no extra help.”
Before taking literacy courses, Siemens was unable to help her daughter.
“I went to school until I was 11, but that was it,” she said. “There was no more school after that. Girls just didn’t go to school longer on the colony.”
To this day, Siemens said she’s very happy they made the move.
“I wanted to improve my literacy because I wanted to help my children with the learning process,” she said. “I wanted to be an example to them that you will never get too old to learn new things. I wanted to go to school to show them school is important.” That example is something both facilitators bring every time they go into a home. “I wanted to build a relationship with the mothers,” Siemens said. “I wanted to show them, not tell, but show them reading is important.”
Siemens said establishing relationships and promoting literacy is the goal. “I will try to connect with them and I won’t judge them for whatever they are, no matter their religion, or how their house is,” she said. “I’m there for them, to help them, to just be there for them.”
Siemens said she’s enjoying it immensely, adding she almost feels guilty for getting paid for something she loves so much.
“It’s not fair to have a job you love so much because jobs are supposed to be hard,” she said with a laugh. “I just love it.”
Friesen-Pankratz said literacy is highly relational, which makes what facilitators are able to do in the home, very important. “We start with community and relationship and from there we’re able to see learning as a passionate thing, a thing to love that’s going to be full of mistakes and that’s okay,” she said. “It’s incredibly inspiring I think when things like this happen from within a community.”
Helena Martens said she loves to be an example thanks to the teaching she’s had. “I’m able to help my son at home with reading and writing,” she said. “I’m able to help other people and show them it’s not really that hard. If you want to, you can.”
Else Siemens agreed. “I’m just so grateful,” she said. “Now I’m able to help my daughters.”