Can literacy lift children out of poverty?

Illiteracy is associated with developing countries, but it’s an issue right here in Canada—often linked to the intergenerational cycle of poverty that affects children long before they enter the school system.

Four out of 10 Canadian adults have literacy skills “too low to be fully competent in most jobs in our modern economy,” according to The Conference Board of Canada. And the reports that only 47 per cent of students from the lowest income bracket (families earning less than $30,000 per year) met the provincial standard for reading.

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“At a national level, in comparison to other countries, Canada is doing very well, but when you boil that down to a community level, there are communities in Ontario that are really struggling,” said Camesha Cox, managing director of The Reading Partnership. “At the top of the list are Black and Indigenous children and youth.”

Cox founded The Reading Partnership eight years ago, after returning from a teaching job in the U.K., where she developed a program to help high-school students who were reading at a primary-school level (or not at all).

“I thought, first of all, how does a person get to Grade 7 without literacy skills?” said Cox. So, when she returned to Toronto, she further developed the program to work with both children and parents, starting when the children were still young (ages four to six). For those who don’t read at the provincial level by the age of eight, she said, the likelihood they’ll continue to struggle through school and later in life increases.

Tax dollars are poured into the educational system, says Cox, yet it’s still failing many children. It’s not because these children have learning disabilities, adds Cox, but rather that they may have gaps in their education.

In a low-income home, for example, children might not have access to reading materials, or they may attend under-resourced daycares or schools. Single parents or those with precarious employment may be working multiple jobs and have less time to spend with their children at home.

“There is no system or protocol in place to ensure that those learning gaps are addressed and you’re caught up,” said Cox. That’s where community-based literacy interventions come in.

A key component to making this work, however, is involving parents, which is why The Reading Partnership also teaches parents how to teach their children to read. The program has worked with hundreds of families in the Toronto neighbourhood of Kingston Galloway Orton Park (KGO). In 12 weeks, children progress from not knowing their letter sounds to the ability to read and respond to comprehensive questions.

Cox specifically chose KGO as a starting point for the program. “When you see the food bank lines, even in the dead of winter, the line is long and it extends outside and people will wait in the cold and the snow and the rain,” she said. “Poverty is real and it’s dense in this community. The link between poverty and literacy is real, too. How does somebody who doesn’t have the literacy skills fill out forms, how do they become gainfully employed?”

While there are community programs, “there are still marginalized families in the community that don’t know about or don’t feel comfortable engaging and interacting with these services,” said Cox. “It’s our responsibility to bridge that gap—we’re trying to create a program and services that are meeting marginalized families where they are.”

This fall, for example, the program was piloted for the first time in one of the neediest schools in the community, where about 50 per cent of every Grade 3 class is struggling to meet the provincial standard for reading. “The teachers in the school have jumped at the opportunity to support this program,” said Cox. So far, they’ve seen an improvement in attitudes toward reading; kids are more excited and focused in class.

EarlyON Child and Family Centres also provide free family programs to parents and their children (up to six years of age) in communities and in some schools, supporting parent education and fostering healthy child development. This includes a library program, where families can take home (and keep) free books.

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“I think the only way you can break intergenerational poverty is giving children opportunities to read,” said Cynthia Pommells, family resource program manager for EarlyON programs with the Delta Family Resource Centre. “When you improve their reading ability, it’s a way of giving them an education and an opportunity to build better lives as they get older.”

The program engages children—and parents. “The changes can happen when parents become interested … where you’re engaging the parents and then letting them know why we need to do this,” said Pommells.

In some cases, parents may lack literacy skills themselves, so they’re not able to help their child at home (or, even if there are books at home, the parents might not put an emphasis on reading). According to Statistics Canada, 17 per cent of Canadian adults aged 16 to 65 had a literacy score of Level 1 or below (meaning they can only find single pieces of information in short texts). Among those with the lowest levels of literacy, 29 per cent were in low-income households.

If children grow up with poor reading skills, they’re more likely to end up working unskilled jobs—and continue living in poverty “because of the intergenerational piece they inherited from their parents,” said Pommells. “So, we try to give parents that educational piece also.”

Literacy allows children to successfully move onto post-secondary education and become gainfully employed, said Cox, but it’s not the only benefit. When she was young, books allowed her to ‘travel,’ despite her inability to physically travel. “I was able to imagine and experience a world outside of my everyday lived experiences through the books I was reading,” she said.

“A child in poverty can experience a world outside of their own through books,” said Cox. “They need to be able to hope and dream and aspire to something better … Books provide another opportunity to see and experience a positive world and positive people.”

Ways you can help:

 

10 unexpected ways to volunteer this winter

Camara Chambers has been giving back since she was 16, when she volunteered in a local charity shop in the United Kingdom. “I realized then that volunteering isn’t just a chance to make a difference; it also gives you skills and learning opportunities you might not find anywhere else,” says Chambers, who is Executive Director of Volunteer Toronto, a United Way–supported agency. And it’s a fantastic thing for families to do together, she adds, especially once the holidays are over, since the need is greater at other times of the year. Here are 10 ways you and your family can change someone’s life for the better.

1. Supporting seniors: Sometimes families have a harder time finding volunteer opportunities that are a good fit for younger children. Chambers recommends looking into your local Meals on Wheels  or Friendly Visiting services. “Elderly people, especially those living in long-term retirement homes, can feel especially isolated, and spending time with them is a lovely opportunity for everyone involved,” she says. “It’s a nice way for children to meet the people they’re helping.” You can connect directly with long-term care homes in your neighbourhood by checking out the volunteer pages on their websites, or by going to local community sites, such as York Region’s CIVICYork page. Search for “long-term care facility volunteer positions” to learn about opportunities.

2. Kids helping kids: A great way to get teens involved—and give high-school students their requisite hours of volunteer service—is to encourage them to give after-school tutoring a try.

3. Call a shelter: Tight on time but driven to do something? Contact your local shelter and ask them what they need. “In the colder months, shelters are often desperate for socks, warm coats and blankets,” says Chambers. Personal-hygiene kits with toothbrushes and shampoo are almost always in demand, too.

4. Share a meal: If you enjoy entertaining, why not invite a family that’s new to Canada over for a holiday feast? You can do it independently or through an organization like Share Thanksgiving, which pairs newcomers with Canadian hosts to share a festive evening with new friends and family.

5. Everyone loves books: Free libraries continue to crop up all over the city, and they’re great places to donate your used books. “It’s such a wonderful way to make books available to people who may not have access to them otherwise,” says Chambers.

6. Be their guest: Some of the city’s Syrian refugee women have started up a grassroots “newcomer kitchen” to share their passion for cooking Syrian cuisine with Canadians. “It’s an opportunity to meet some of the country’s newest citizens and to experience their food and culture,” says Chambers. Even Justin Trudeau has dropped by for a newcomer brunch.

7. Build a gingerbread house: Every winter, Habitat for Humanity GTA hosts a gingerbread house-building workshop for kids. Participants pay $50 for a kit, which comes complete with assembled or unassembled house (depending on how ambitious you feel!), icing and plenty of candy. Proceeds fund the organization’s building projects.

8. Pass on your points: Did you know you can donate your Airmiles points to charity? Most people don’t, Chambers says, but it’s a quick and easy way to give back.

9. Out of the Cold: Every winter, many of the city’s churches open their doors to the homeless, offering some respite from the bitter temperatures outside. And there are lots of ways you can help, from simply being on hand to greet people and answer questions to handing out hot drinks. Log on to the Out of the Cold website to find a program near you.

10. Hit the ice: Evergreen Brick Works is a volunteer mecca year-round, but in the winter the organization needs extra help once its skating rink is up and running. You can pitch in lots of ways, from helping out in the skate shop to being a rink ambassador.

If you’d like to find more ways to volunteer with your kids, check out Volunteer Toronto’s site; their Suitable for Families (with Kids under 14) page is routinely updated with non-profit organizations that could use your help. You can also find additional winter volunteer opportunities on the site’s Holiday volunteering page.

3 moms who inspire us

With Mother’s Day just days away, we wanted to celebrate three amazing moms we met over the past year. With hard work and a whole lot of love, these dedicated women are working to create opportunities for their children to ensure they have every chance at a bright future.

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From left: Najwa Issa Khalil and her children, Aya, Alaa and Ibrahim.

1. Najwa Issa Khalil: Najwa is a true testament to courage and resilience. Following the devastating humanitarian crisis in Syria, she and her family were forced to leave their hometown of Aleppo. For the sake of their children, they fled to Canada—leaving behind everything to start a new life in an entirely new country. Najwa inspires us because she demonstrates the sacrifices mothers make to ensure the safety and well-being of their family. Today, with the help of a United Way agency, the family is integrating into their new community and are ready for what is sure to be a bright future. “I’m happy,” says Najwa. “We feel welcome and very safe in Canada.”

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2. Sushi Rosborough: For years, Sushi struggled with poverty and addiction. But, despite a life of uncertainty, this mother’s love for her son remained steady. In order to ensure he had every opportunity to thrive, Sushi knew she needed to break the cycle that had controlled her life for so long. After getting support at Street Health, a United Way agency, Sushi eventually enrolled in a peer outreach program. Today, she works as a peer support worker at the centre. ”My son is 26 now and he’s doing awesome,” says the proud mom. “He’s a security guard and really enjoys what he does.” The epitome of strength and perseverance—and proof that the love for your child can be the hope you need to turn your life around.

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Justine Chen See and her mom, Gladys.

3. Gladys Chen See: Gladys wanted a promising future for her daughter. But, Justine was born with an intellectual disability, and following high school, had no next steps to transition from adolescence to adulthood. So, Gladys decided to do something about it. With a little help from a United Way agency, Gladys, along with other parents of special-needs youth, turned a once-vacant tuck shop into a place where their kids could learn valuable life skills. It’s an opportunity that has changed both of their lives. “I’m hopeful she’ll have a future,” says Gladys. A mother who’s helping her daughter create a pathway to a future she never thought possible. And, confidence in her daughter’s ability that is nothing short of admirable.

Home-Image-1000x400Think your mom is awesome, too? Show her how much you care by making a gift in her honour. You’ll help moms in our community give their children opportunities to thrive. Plus, you’ll receive a Bloomex gift card to spend on flowers for Mother’s Day or beyond.

Changemakers to watch: Michael Braithwaite

Meet Michael Braithwaite. He’s a passionate champion who’s made it his life’s work to ensure young people facing barriers have every opportunity for a promising future. As the Executive Director of 360°kids, he’s not only providing a safe haven for at-risk youth, he’s pursuing innovative, out-of-the-box ideas to tackle homelessness in York Region.

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Michael Braithwaite
Executive Director, 360°kids

WHO: Michael has a long history is the social services sector. Before taking the lead at 360°kids, a United Way–supported agency, he spent over two decades with the YMCA—spearheading everything from day camps in Niagara Region to a men’s shelter in downtown Hamilton and employment programming in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood. But as a father of three, Michael is especially drawn to the youth demographic. “My kids look no different than the young people that I work with everyday,” he says. “I like working with youth because they have so much to offer. If they matter to just one person, that can be the hope they need to turn their life around.”

WHY: In March, 360°kids was named “Best Non-Profit” at the Richmond Hill Chamber of Commerce 2016 Business Awards. And with good reason. Thanks to a partnership with the Regional

Michael and his daughter, Irene, following the 360° Experience.

Michael and his daughter, Irene, following the 360° Experience.

Municipality of York, 360°kids is operating out of a new 20,000-square-foot facility in Richmond Hill, increasing its youth drop-in capacity. Prior to the expansion, there were only 27 shelter beds dedicated to youth throughout the rapidly-growing region. “Housing is a major issue in York Region, especially for young people who are experiencing issues at home,” explains Michael. “These crucial spaces allow youth to live semi-independently while accessing the supports they need to get back on their feet.”

Michael celebrates 360°kids' award for "Best Non-Profit" at the Richmond Hill Chamber of Commerce 2016 Business Awards.

Michael celebrates 360°kids’ award for “Best Non-Profit” at the Richmond Hill Chamber of Commerce 2016 Business Awards.

It’s an issue Michael knows well—because it hits close to home. For years, his sister struggled with addiction and mental health issues, and, at just 16, found herself in and out of precarious housing. “It can happen to anyone and any family,” says Michael. “This cause drives me because if my sister had access to an organization like 360°kids growing up, she might have broken that pattern a long time ago.”

But Michael’s impact is more than just bricks-and-mortar improvements. His team has also been the brains behind 360° Experience, which invites business and community leaders to experience a day in the life of homeless youth—braving the cold, hunger and isolation. “I wanted to do something that really has an impact,” he says. “You might only endure these struggles for one day, but it’s an experience that will last a lifetime.”

Michael and Phil Dawson, Fire & EMS Chief, East Gwillimbury, struggle to keep warm during the 360° Experience.

Michael and Phil Dawson, Fire & EMS Chief, East Gwillimbury, struggle to keep warm during the 360° Experience.

WHAT’S NEXT: Drawing on innovative ideas from across the globe, Michael is now piloting a preventative program—in partnership with Raising the Roof—that will see outreach workers visiting schools to identify early signs of struggle that could lead to homelessness. He’s also working to create the first LGBTQ youth shelter in York Region, and plans to have 360°kids become the first Night Stop-accredited agency in Canada—a UK-based program that matches individuals and families who have space in their home to young people in need. “It would only cost $4,000 a year to place a child in an actual home—whether it’s a couple whose grown children have moved out or a senior who feels isolated and could use some extra help around the house,” he explains. “It would be beneficial to both parties, and the best part: a child would have a real place to call home.”

GOOD ADVICE:

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