Program manager connects to family literacy

The 2022 Family Literacy Week theme “Let’s Connect! Care * Play * Listen” is all about connecting. When we connect, we build strong relationships, create trust, and support our social, emotional and physical health.

Decoda Literacy Solutions program manager Maureen Kehler talks about the importance of connections in family literacy, in community literacy and in her role at Decoda.

Family literacy – it’s basically what family life is,” says Maureen, “connecting through talking and listening, reading together, working together and playing together.” In my family, my parents noticed when we were interested in learning new things and responded with encouragement and opportunities to help us learn. I think my parents believed we all could learn just about anything if we set our minds to it.”

Family literacy connects generations

Family literacy is the way parents, children and extended family members use literacy at home and in the community.

“I still remember how I felt when my mom read to me; how safe and loved I felt next to her as we explored other lives and worlds together in a book,” says Maureen. “And my parents were the best grandparents. They had 11 grandchildren and they had an annual special weekend with each grandchild individually.”

Now a grandmother of four herself, Maureen sees the three who live nearby at least twice a week and finds plenty of ways to connect through family literacy.

“I nurture that connection with my own grandchildren. We do a lot of floor play and building. Reading and card games – even though I’m not a fan of card games, they love it and there’s learning involved. Counting and matching, learning rules and taking turns, and all the conversation and laughter in between!”

She believes families can connect during screen time, too.

“You can do a warm-up for a movie or video game, the same as when you warm up a book. Ask what it’s called, what it’s about, who are the characters, what interests or excites them about it? Learn about what they’re doing and even give it a try.”

Connections to teaching

Before joining Decoda almost 10 years ago, Maureen had been a nurse, a teacher, a literacy outreach coordinator, an adult literacy practitioner, and an employment counsellor.

Trained as a nurse, she wasn’t in the field long before starting her family. Then her husband Rudy had the opportunity to lead Camp Squeah, a children’s summer camp, outdoor education and retreat centre, near Hope.

It is a gorgeous place, exciting things were happening and I wanted to be involved in education and to be involved where we lived.”

At Camp Squeah she taught rock climbing, canoeing, archery, and experiential programs to adults, youth and children.

She also home-schooled her four children for their first five years of education.

Literacy is foundational and a human right

Maureen loves seeing learners, whether children or adults, build confidence and move forward to achieve their literacy goals.

“Literacy is foundational – it’s what everything else is built on,” she says. “It makes life easier. It’s also a human right. Trauma, learning disabilities, mental health, and lack of opportunity; all affect our ability to learn. Our literacy levels should never be the measure of our worth or our intelligence. We need to put an end to the stigma attached to low literacy.

When she was a literacy outreach coordinator, she saw the impact tutors can have on learners.

Having literacy support gave them confidence to say, ‘If I can learn this, I can learn something else.’

Connections to literacy outreach coordinators

Maureen’s main focus as a Decoda program manager is supporting the 100 literacy outreach coordinators (LOCs) across BC. While LOCs work with their local organizations and schools to prioritize literacy needs and create programs, they rely on Maureen for guidance, resources and training.

“I see myself as a coach and a connection to resources and to other LOCs.”

She says BC’s collaborative LOC model and literacy network is well-respected in other areas of Canada.

“The beauty of community-based literacy programs is that they don’t have to be a formal course. Literacy organizations can adapt to meet people where they are at. They may do drop-in learning or one-on-one support to meet a specific need. It’s learner-centred and community-focused.”

Connection to place-based learning

Although she was born and raised in Vancouver, Maureen has a special connection to rural and remote communities, both from her time at Camp Squeah and in her role at Decoda. She has visited communities across BC to provide regional training and she visited communities in other provinces on national projects.

I got to understand the challenges and also the advantages of remote and rural communities and of place-based learning. In some places, the literacy organization is the hub of the community.”

In small communities, they’re the only act in town! People go there to get help with government forms, access employment services, or get digital literacy support – as well as literacy support. Sometimes the literacy org is the place to go for food too. Many have community gardens, cooking classes and workshops like how to be a coupon diva!”

Learning and leading

Maureen loves diving into projects with Decoda partners.

She leads Decoda’s partnership with Postmedia’s Raise-a-Reader campaign that supports community literacy programs for children and families. Many community literacy organizations use Raise-a-Reader funds to contribute to their Family Literacy Week events and activities.

Since the 2017 pilot project, she has led the coordination of the Fostering Literacy program that provides one-on-one tutoring for vulnerable children and provides literacy support training for parents and caregivers, now in 19 BC communities.

Maureen helped facilitate the 2013-15 research project Strengthening Rural Canada, a collaborative project between Essential Skills Ontario, Decoda Literacy Solutions, the Saskatchewan Literacy Network, Literacy Newfoundland and Labrador, and RESDAC (Research Data Assistance Center); and she co-wrote A Guidebook for Place-Based Approaches to Literacy and Essential Skills Development.

Meeting online creates new connections

The past two years of the pandemic meant no more community visits. So, in April 2020, Decoda introduced monthly Zoom video meetings with the LOCs.

“COVID was a catalyst to move to online meetings and training, and it has had a lot of benefits. The LOCs are more connected to each other. The exchange of ideas has grown.”

“In the Zoom meetings we can have breakout rooms to discuss specific topics. StoryWalks® were the big hit this year. The LOCs sharing information and resources was helpful for everyone.”

More than 52 BC StoryWalks® were happening in summer 2021 and many communities have year-round StoryWalks®.

“It was a great way for families to connect outdoors.”

Connection to the outdoors and lifelong learning

Today Maureen lives in Yale, a small community in the Fraser Canyon, where she works remotely, raises chickens and enjoys the outdoors. She is interested in sustainable communities and is currently a director of the ratepayers’ association. She’s also part of Yale’s emergency planning committee.

When she’s not reading a book, she is outdoors – cycling, hiking, kayaking, and, for the past few years, sailing. She took her first sailing course in 2017, shortly after buying a 37-foot sailboat and the learning continues.

Maureen practices what she tells learners, her children and her grandchildren: let’s learn more.

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