Success stories: Literacy and Essential Skills

The lives of Canadians are touched on a daily basis by Employment and Social Development Canada and its portfolio partners. These success stories are about Canadians who have changed their own lives, or those of others, through the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills.

List of stories

  • Making a life-changing decision

    June 14, 2011

    “When trying to decide if returning to school is a viable option for you, consider the reasons why you have to do it, rather than dwelling on the excuses why you can’t,” says Ken Culleton.

    A resident of Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Ken decided to upgrade his literacy and essential skills after noticing an advertisement in his local newspaper. Featured in the advertisement were statistics pertaining to the lack of employment possibilities for people with less than a Grade 12 education.

    At the time, Ken was working as a manager in a sporting goods store. Though he liked the job, Ken was sometimes frustrated because it was impossible for him to take advantage of opportunities to advance in his job due to his limited Grade 9 education.

    Making the life-changing decision to go to school was the greatest challenge that Ken had to face. Once he got past that step, he enrolled in literacy programs, funded by Employment and Social Development Canada’s Office of Literacy and Essential Skills, and offered through Adult and Community Education at Holland College, in Summerside, Prince Edward Island. Everything else seemed to fall into place after Ken took this first important step.

    Upon completing his Grade 12 certificate, Ken also won a Garfield Weston Merit Scholarship for Colleges national scholarship award. He was later presented with a Program Award for Initiative and Proficiency after completing a two-year college diploma course. He is now actively working on a second college diploma and will graduate in June 2009 with a Certificate in Adult Education, which will enable him to pursue a teaching career. He then plans to take more courses to obtain a Bachelor of Education degree.

    Furthering his education has instilled new-found confidence in Ken, making him realize that there is a world of opportunities out there for him. The feeling of self-satisfaction he experiences is absolutely amazing, he says.

    Ken’s original career plan was to set up his own business as a computer technician. He tells us that one stepping stone led to another, and now, he is teaching others in the same classrooms he had first returned to in 2000! Making a difference in people's lives has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of his life, Ken says.

    His wife and children are especially proud of his achievements. Now, Ken is experiencing a more fulfilled life. He is active in raising awareness about the number of opportunities that can arise from pursuing higher education.

  • A whole new world

    October 27, 2011

    Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario - You could say a television commercial changed Michael Shaughnessy's life.

    That is how he found out about Program Read. Funded by Employment and Skills Development Canada's Office of Literacy and Essential Skills, the program teaches adults how to read and do math. Michael says that it took him a year of watching the Program Read commercial over and over before he made the important phone call.

    In the past, Michael had not been able to participate in many day-to-day activities due to his inability to read. These included taking the bus or going to see a movie. He would get directions from people but would end up making excuses for not showing up-all of this because he was not able to read street signs.

    Though Michael had his Grade 12 diploma, he came out of school unable to read. When Program Read matched him with a volunteer tutor, he decided to give his all to improving his literacy and essential skills, even though he wasn't sure if it was going to be a waste of time. Looking back, Michael is so happy that he went ahead with it.

    One of the best parts of the experience for him was the dedication, caring and compassion demonstrated by the people at Program Read. It motivated him and opened up doors that he had never realized were there. Though he started as a Level 1 learner, Michael has progressed to Level 5 (college level) in his studies at Program Read and Sault College. He also decided to give back to Literacy and Essential Skills as much as he could.

    Michael has been volunteering as a computer tutor. He also became a board member for Program Read and the Ontario Literacy Coalition. He is now more involved in his community, especially on poverty issues and accessibility. In addition, Michael attends night and day classes when he is not volunteering. He has also started his own woodworking business.

    Michael says that he is now more outspoken, more independent and has met a lot more people and made new friends. He says that he used to be very good at hiding the fact that he could not read from his friends, but now feels happy to discuss his achievements and celebrate his successes. He encourages everyone who has difficulty with literacy and essential skills to make the move to upgrade. Michael's advice to those struggling with skills is: "With the right support behind you, anything is possible. There is a whole new world out there that I never knew existed."

  • Literacy saved my life

    October 27, 2011

    Edmonton, Alberta - Asking for help is the first and often hardest step.

    One common challenge among adults with reading and writing difficulties is the stigma associated with having low literacy and essential skills. This was the case with Danny Haines, who found that his biggest challenge was admitting that he needed help to improve these important skills.

    It all started for Danny when he was recovering from a work-related injury. He realized that higher literacy and essential skills would help him obtain a better job and be more successful.

    But Danny was embarrassed to tell people that he needed help. Over the years, he had been offered promotions or office-related work, but due to his low literacy and essential skills, he had always turned the offers down for fear that someone would find out about his weakness. When, later on, his wife called the Project Adult Literacy Society (PALS), funded by Employment and Skills Development Canada's (ESDC) Office of Literacy and Essential Skills, to set up an initial appointment for him, Danny made the life-changing decision to enrol in a literacy program.

    He now finds that enhancing his skills has opened new doors and new opportunities that he never even dreamed of in the past. Danny is currently employed as a truck driver at the Food Bank. His improved literacy skills have enabled him to obtain his Air Brake, Fork Lift and First Aid certificates, which are required for his new job. Furthermore, he has gained self-confidence and is currently Alberta's Literacy Learner Representative with the Movement for Canadian Literacy (MCL), a national organization. He is also the Vice Chair of the Learner's Advisory Network (LAN) Leadership Team, which is a part of the MCL Board.

    As he became more involved in the literacy community, Danny realized that he was not alone and that there were many adults like him who needed help. Going to Ottawa in the spring of 2007 and speaking before a Senate committee on literacy was one of Danny's most exciting opportunities. Although Danny is still not very comfortable talking about himself, he is passionate about literacy and feels that, if his story can inspire others to begin their own literacy journey, then it's worth it. If he had been told five years ago that he would one day speak before the Senate of Canada, Danny says that he would not have believed it. In September 2008, Danny also received Alberta's Council of the Federation Literacy Award.

    When asked how the experience changed his life, Danny revealed, “It hasn't just changed my life, but I really believe it has saved my life!” He added that he wants people to hear his story so that they will be encouraged to seek help, and that for him, this is a way of giving back to those who have helped him. Thanks to ESDC, PALS and the backing of supportive family members who are so happy to see the positive changes in his life, Danny is on his way to many years of continued success.

  • Ellen's story

    October 27, 2011

    Victoria, British Columbia - Ellen Szita's story began in England, where she was born into a family of eight children. At 14 years of age, with very little schooling, she went to work in a factory. Having lived through a dysfunctional childhood, she experienced a total loss of self-worth and attempted suicide at 15.

    In 1960 at age 18, Ellen immigrated to Canada, to the province of Quebec. Ten years later, she moved to British Columbia with her husband and four children. After her marriage failed, she lived on welfare for many years due to her lack of literacy and essential skills. Depression followed, and during one of Ellen's visits to her therapist, it was discovered that she was dyslexic. Her doctor then encouraged her to upgrade her reading, writing and numeracy skills through a program offered by the Victoria READ Society and funded by Employment and Skills Development Canada's Office of Literacy and Essential Skills.

    It was during the time she spent at the Victoria READ Society that Ellen learned about the high rates of low literacy skills in Canada. Since three of her four children had left school between Grades 7 and 10, Ellen became aware that, as she put it, “illiteracy could breed illiteracy.” This realization resulted in her becoming actively involved with the Movement for Canadian Literacy in Ottawa, where she is still a board member.

    Ellen, a recovering alcoholic of 25 years, now sits on three boards of directors for literacy. She has participated on various panels; given talks at high schools, colleges, universities and conferences; as well as spoken to incarcerated people, to health organizations and to many other groups. She went on to take a counseling course so she could help learners in need. Ellen has also been interviewed on radio and television, and has been featured in several newspaper and magazine articles aimed at promoting literacy awareness.

    A recipient of several literacy awards, Ellen has also published works of poetry, short stories and articles. On International Literacy Day, September 8, 1994, she was awarded the Flight for Freedom Award by the Governor General of Canada. Ten years later, Ellen was once more honoured on International Literacy Day, as runner-up for the Council of the Federation Literacy Award. An award-winning documentary produced on her life, Ellen's Story, has been shown throughout North America and Europe. Her autobiography of the same name, which was recently published, is a testimony to her 25 years of hard work for literacy. Most recently, Ellen was named Readers' Digest's Hero of 2009.

  • An entrepreneur’s success story

    June 7, 2012

    Charlettetown, Prince Edward Island—Dianne Smith is a flourishing entrepreneur who worked her way up the ladder of success, one step at a time.

    The first step started with an important conversation that she had with a volunteer literacy worker while working at a farmers’ market.

    Dianne learned about a local literacy skills upgrading program, funded by Employment and Social Development Canada’s Office of Literacy and Essential Skills and delivered by the Prince Edward Island Literacy Alliance. She says that, had she not followed the advice that the volunteer tutor gave her years ago, she would not be enjoying the standard of living that she has now.

    Prior to enrolling in the literacy program, Dianne had been holding down three jobs to support her family. She had been doing manual work and was getting older. She knew that she could not keep up that pace. Dianne realized that she had to start “working smarter, rather than working harder,” as she puts it.

    Dianne’s efforts at school finally paid off. She obtained her Grade 12 certificate on the eve of her 50th birthday; this gift to herself meant a more positive future and a secure retirement.

    Improving her literacy levels has also opened new doors for Dianne. It has enhanced her self-esteem and helped her to establish her own licensed community care facility in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

    Dianne is happy that her children followed her example and also pursued their education. Their successes constantly remind Dianne of how important her efforts were, not only for herself, but for them. All of her children are gainfully employed and successful in their careers.

    Now, as a board member of the Prince Edward Island Literacy Alliance, Dianne is involved in a number of volunteer activities. She often gets the opportunity to speak to government officials about the literacy challenges that adults face in her community.

    “I am so glad that I had the courage to take a risk and trust that things would work out for me. I am no longer doing menial tasks and being poorly paid,” says Dianne. “I have never been happier.”

  • Essential skills upgrading key to building a successful workforce

    Calgary, Alberta - Carewest is a large public health care provider with 11 long-term care facilities and 1 400 beds. The organization's aim is to help adults with complex medical needs to live more independent lives. Carewest invests millions of dollars each year in training its workforce in everything from food safety to hazardous medications.

    Blair Phillips, Carewest's Director of Human Resources and Facilities, says because many staff were struggling to apply the knowledge and clinical skills they were taught, the organization decided to examine the root causes of this issue. It joined forces with the Essential Skills Group Inc. (ESG), a leader in essential skills and workforce development, to look at the skills front-line health care workers need to perform their job. They started by reviewing Employment and Skills Development Canada's recently updated Essential Skills Profiles.

    Skills like reading, document use, numeracy, oral communication and thinking are critical to building a successful workforce. Workers who do not have the level of essential skills they need to perform their job have difficulty grasping the concepts that underpin technical training. They also have difficulty adapting to complex client needs and new situations and are more likely to make errors. For example, a licensed practical nurse with low numeracy skills may not understand how to calculate ratios and proportions.

    Carewest is investing $3.5 million in essential skills-related activities over the next three years to assess the essential skills of more than 1 000 employees and provide in-house education to build workers' skills. They are integrating essential skills into technical training and will deliver about 30 hours of essential skills-related instruction each year to front line employees.

    Blair Phillips asked ESG to create a series of four customized assessments based on the complexity framework developed by Employment and Skills Development Canada. These paper-based assessments will measure essential skills in five areas-reading, document use, numeracy, oral communication and thinking skills.

    Carewest plans to use the essential skills assessment with about 1 000 job candidates each year. They will also use it with 1 000 existing workers. ESG will enter the assessment results into a web application and produce a results report and a customized learning plan for each worker.

    The results report will indicate the level of essential skills the individual has and will list areas where additional supervision and training support are needed. The learning plan will provide a list of resources the individual can access and will focus on the skills he or she needs to build.

    The web application will also help Carewest benchmark and track the essential skills of its workforce by occupational group, site and worker. This information will help the organization make targeted strategic decisions about hiring, supervision and workforce development.

    With ESG's help, Carewest is taking immediate steps to reduce the complexity of workplace documents used by staff. One particularly complex form with confusing medical terminology was redesigned. The new form was simplified using plain language with specific examples, and graphics and color. They focus-tested the revamped form with health care aides and it was further refined.

    Carewest has been redesigning other materials such as a first aid self-study module. The original module had a reading level of 16 years of education-equivalent to four years of post-secondary education. The revised plain language version requires only nine years of education.

    Blair Phillips hopes other organizations in health care will benefit from Carewest's experience. "We take Carewest's tag line, 'Innovative Health Care,' seriously," he says. "We hope this will have application throughout the industry."

    With total health care expenditures in Canada of approximately $200 billion in 2011, even a small increase in the effectiveness of staff could result in greater efficiencies and have a positive impact on health care outcomes.

    Michael Herzog, a partner in ESG, says, "Carewest is a great example of how industry is leveraging Employment and Skills Development Canada's essential skills research to the benefit of Canadians."

  • Taking on new challenges in childcare: Marie Morris' story

    I started working for a childcare centre nine years ago as an assistant supervisor and with hard work, I became a full-time supervisor. This is the story of how investing in essential skills helped me gain self-confidence and advance in my career.

    Continuous learning has always been important to me. I have participated in many training courses to improve my essential skills. When I started working in the childcare business, I never thought I would become a supervisor. I didn't think I had the skills needed to do the job. However, my boss strongly encouraged me to take risks in my career. She inspired me to continue my education. I went back to school to pursue a diploma in Early Childhood Education Supervision and Administration at night school.

    As a supervisor, I have many responsibilities. I prepare staff schedules, and oversee payroll and invoicing. I also make adjustments to billing when fees change, and ensure that employees are paid correctly. This requires strong numeracy and computer use skills, which I have developed in company-sponsored courses and workshops.

    Oral communication skills are important for me as well. I have to solve conflicts among staff members and meet with parents to discuss their wishes for and concerns about their children. I participated in Toastmasters to develop and improve my communication skills. I am now comfortable speaking to small and large groups.

    I never thought I would be in charge of a childcare centre, but by improving my essential skills, I am. Now a confident worker, my goal for the future is to help set up a new childcare centre and continue developing my skills.

  • A role model for a mechanical millwright: Cathy Lewis' story

    After attending Fanshawe College in London, Ontario, I became an apprentice at an automotive manufacturing company. This is the story of how I developed and used my essential skills to overcome challenges on the job and become an industrial mechanic millwright.

    Working with others is an important skill, but it is not always easy to do. I was the first female tradesperson to work at the company, and gaining the respect of some of my colleagues was a challenge. I had to prove that I was highly skilled and able to work in the industry. I learned how to handle difficult workplace situations by being an active listener and tactful with my colleagues. I eventually became a welcome member of the team because I could respect my co-workers' feelings, while being assertive at the same time.

    Continuous learning from some of my colleagues also played a role in my success. They taught me lessons and skills that helped my career in the skilled trades. One co-worker helped me improve my thinking skills by giving me advice on decision making and problem solving. Another role model taught me how to be proud of my work and to be a confident worker. They inspired me to mentor other new employees. I used my oral communication skills to give direction and guidance to a new apprentice.

    I have developed personally and professionally over the years. I am ready to take on any challenge. Since I earned my millwright license, the company I work for has hired three other female employees. I am sure that my success is the result of my essential skills and perseverance.

  • Figuring out the future: Brendon McAskill's story

    Working in Prince Edward Island with little education, I relied on part-time seasonal jobs for work. When I became a husband and father, my career-path changed. This is the story of how improving my essential skills has led to a better future for my family.

    From counting cars to making pre-cast concrete, I have had a variety of jobs. None of them led to a permanent position. After I married, I decided to improve my essential skills in the hopes of finding higher paying, permanent work.

    Continuous learning has played an important role in my career development. I was not keen on formal education when I was younger. As an adult, I see it as a personal investment. I decided to go back to school to improve my numeracy skills. To earn my Grade 12 math and physics credits, I had to start at a Grade 7 level. With perseverance, I earned the credits.

    Following this success, I spent two years earning all of the prerequisites needed for a construction technology program offered at a local college. I completed the program and became a site foreperson for the city.

    My job requires strong document use skills. I transfer information gathered on the field during sewer and water maintenance or repairs onto a master drawing. This keeps the city aware of the state of its water and sewer systems.

    I continue to improve my skills in courses such as a Workplace Hazardous Materials course. The city requires all permanent full-time water and sewer employees to have a high school diploma. My goal is to earn my Grade 12 high school equivalency through the General Educational Development program. I plan to continue my skills development so that I can obtain a permanent job and better support my family.

  • The sequel to tree cutting: Mel Lively's story

    There's not much in the lumber business that I haven't seen or done. As a young boy, I decided to become a woodsman. Sadly, a major accident forced me to leave the woods and look for other work. This is the story of how essential skills helped me cope with this sudden change and make my life better.

    Continuous learning has always been a part of my life. When I was very young, I went to work in the woods to help support my family. My brother and I learned how to cut fence posts and firewood. I learned all there was to know about the logging business, from building a brow at the side of the road to the science of tree cutting.

    At 43, my life changed completely. I had a major accident which forced me to get a job indoors. That's when I learned about essential skills. With the support of my employer and the Nova Scotia Department of Education, I learned how to read and write. Now I can read documents and graphs at work, and contribute to the company newsletter.

    I have even written a book about my life in the woods, which is very popular with the local Grade 3 students. They love to read about how I chopped down trees. I'm even planning a sequel - something my grandchildren are really looking forward to.

    Improving my essential skills has given me more than I had ever dreamed of. Even though I can no longer work as a woodsman, I have a new way of sharing my passion and love for life in the woods with others.

  • Lifting the lid off the canning industry: Anne McKenna's story

    While I was working on a production line at a canning factory, I found my key to success. This is the story of how essential skills training opened new doors for me and my career.

    I left high school after Grade 10 and went to work on a production line at a local canning company. After a few years, I applied for a job in quality control. The manager let me try it out to see if I could do it. Based on my experience and the fact that I'm a quick learner, I got the job. But in order to keep it, I had to work on my essential skills.

    The company-sponsored continuous learning program was there to help me. I earned my high school diploma through the General Educational Development (GED) program. Like many people who have been out of school for a long time, I was scared of going back to the books. Even so, I knew that I was ready and I enjoyed it.

    After graduating, I focused on improving the skills that were important in my job. I took a night course at a local college to improve my reading, numeracy and oral communication skills and earned a certificate from the American Society for Quality. I felt more confident and better prepared when talking to union representatives and Head Office.

    Having improved some of my essential skills, I had a good understanding of what I was good at. I have always loved history and was fascinated by stories about the old building where I worked. I began working with a local writer and historian to find out more about the building and put my writing skills to work. We eventually finished a manuscript which many of my co-workers enjoy reading.

    Today, I have a new job with a major food company. I'm here because I got over my fear and opened new doors by investing in essential skills. I look forward to the future, and know my life will always be full of learning.

  • The journey from an after-School job to a successful career: Nicole Linde's story

    When I was 16, I got a part-time job answering phones at a call centre. Now, at 22, I lead the Information and Communications Technology operations at the same place. This is the story of how I worked my way up by improving my essential skills.

    When I started working at the call centre, one of my first tasks was to learn how the company's high-tech phone and computer system worked. I began by improving my computer use skills. The tools were always changing, and I needed to keep up.

    This was a challenge. Many long-time employees were leaving the call centre, and important information was not being passed on to newer employees. My manager saw the problem and decided the team needed training to develop our working with others skills.

    Continuous learning on the job and through courses helped us work better together. We saw the value of sharing information and best practices. Our thinking skills improved. It was easier to solve problems and make decisions, and we learned how to deal with conflict at work. Within a couple of years, people were happier at their jobs and less likely to leave. I used all these skills to eventually become a team leader and manager.

    Now I'm in charge of system and client care, account set-up and sales. I find that every day leads to new challenges. I know there is a lot to learn in the high-tech industry. But I feel that my essential skills have given me the confidence and ability to do well in this exciting, fast paced setting.

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