A Nanaimo-based literacy program for Indigenous elders is helping its students gain confidence and navigate the world.
The FEATHERS Society (First Elders Accessible Training Healing Education Respect Support) provides a safe space for literacy training to Indigenous elders and adults who are residential, day school and intergenerational survivors.
“The students are amazing. They are incredibly brave and courageous to be coming back into a classroom after what they experienced,” said Mary Desprez, a board member with the society. “The barriers are so extreme – things we take for granted, like navigating a grocery store. They’re all eligible for HandyDART, for example, except you can’t apply if you don’t have a computer and you can’t read.”
According to Desprez, the program first started when the chair of the board, Doug Savory, befriended an Indigenous woman who couldn’t read or write and was impressed by how well she managed to navigate the world. While there are numerous programs for Indigenous youths, Savory and the growing board were surprised by the lack of actual teaching programs for Indigenous elders in a classroom setting.
With support and backing from numerous community groups, a seven-week pilot program was started in the fall, geared towards the specific needs of Indigenous elders.
“We’re building the plane while we’re flying it,” said Desprez. “We really didn’t know how it would be accepted. And it’s just been an absolutely beautiful and humbling experience.”
The literacy program is provided at no cost to its students and includes lunch, supplies and even transport – all donated to the program itself at no cost by sponsors.
The program will be expanded over the next two years, bringing customized learning to a total of 11 communities across Canada.
The first expansion is planned for Penticton for fall this year, and then to Dawson Creek in early 2023. Gradually, the literacy program will reach Moose Jaw, London, Belleville, Hamilton, St. Catherine’s, Toronto, Windsor and Ottawa. The expansion is possible thanks to a sponsorship by Oak View Group and the various municipalities in which they manage and operate conference centre facilities, including the Vancouver Island Conference Centre (VICC).
The general manager of VICC, Chuck Loëwen, also with Oak View Group, said he immediately knew it was the right thing to do when Desprez approached him about using the space, and even the further expansion.
“Wherever we can do it, we’ll be able to do it,” said Loëwen. “We have affiliations with different cities and different buildings, and we’re hopeful that other companies that are similar to ours will see this and roll it out in those cities and communities.”
Florence Marshall, 68, has been attending the literacy program since it started last year and said being together with the students and the teachers brings her a lot of happiness.
“We’re like family here,” she said. “We help each other out. When somebody’s down, we lift each other up.”
The warm and welcome environment has encouraged her to attend classes and keep learning.
“I plan to finish. I started and I plan to finish and go through right to the end … They work at my level here, and at my pace so I can understand. They’re wonderful teachers and they take their time with me.”
Marshall said she now enjoys reading about her own and different Indigenous cultures, thanks to the program.
Enrolment for the FEATHERS Society literacy program is ongoing, with the current term running until June 30. They meet Mondays and Wednesdays between 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. at the conference centre. Further information about the program and enrolment can be found www.feathersliteracycircle.ca, or through e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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