When working at the volunteer bureau in Smithers, Murray George noticed many people who came in often had trouble completing their forms. They would say they’ve forgotten their glasses or IDs, opting to take it home but never returned.
He quickly realized they were carefully covering up something they’ve been hiding their entires lives — they had trouble reading and writing.
“I was just kind of oblivious at first, some would take the form and have a variety of excuses,” says George. “It came as a real surprise to me that there are people out there that could not read and write.”
Later working with Literacy Smithers, he says he found out that 40 per cent of the province’s population was noted to have low literacy skills and began to see how common it was amongst adults, especially in the Northwest.
He eventually moved to Terrace where he took on the executive director role at the Literacy Terrace Society and oversaw approximately 25 volunteers that taught adults essential reading and writing skills.
Sitting down with the students, he heard their stories on how they were left behind at school and then struggled through life. For them, even going to the grocery store can be a hassle so they depend on images and others to carry out simple, daily tasks.
Some were looking for jobs, some learned English as a second language and others had reached elderly age only to discover how badly they wanted to read books aloud to their grandchildren or help them with their homework.
“A lot of people just disguise themselves from being a poor reader, they’ve gotten through high school and they just kind of accept that they missed the boat,” George says.
“For many years, we had a resource-based economy here, so if you were in school and you weren’t doing well, you knew that at 16 you’re going to be out that door and still have a job.”
George says job expectations have changed as employees are expected to have standard literacy skills, given the bigger responsibility now included with positions. Those who worked in a resource job in the area, like lumber, have lost their jobs and are forced to seek employment in a world they have trouble deciphering.
Oftentimes, their illiteracy can unhinge their confidence when it comes to pursuing job opportunities or promotions. They may feel they’re not worthy or incapable of learning so they continue to hide it, afraid of being labeled as “stupid” or “unintelligent” which George describes as a stigma that needs to be addressed more publicly.
“Information overload is a problem…if we improved the literacy level, we can make people be accepted better. There are also a lot of jobs out there that if the employer just made a few modifications, it would be much easier for people with low literacy or for anybody.”
For him, he blames the school system for pushing students forward despite them not meeting the standard literacy expectations of their age. He understands that teachers and parents don’t want their child to feel left behind or bullied, but that it ends up doing them more harm than good. Working as an instructor at schools before, he’s seen youth take on the “class clown” act or “disappear into the wallpaper” to avoid bringing attention to their difficulties with reading.
“I describe learning to read and write as a continual process, you don’t just go into grade one and poof, you know things,” George says. “For whatever reason, they missed a few of those things I call pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, maybe they moved a lot as kids… or they were sick for a while and they just missed another little bit.”
But despite the high low literacy rate, the Literacy Terrace Society was forced to shut its doors this past March as the province continues to cut funding to literacy programs throughout B.C. This year, there was a 25 per cent reduction in the maximum allowable grant, which for the society meant a drop from $40,000 to $30,000 to run their volunteer-based program.
The society would receive anywhere from $12,000 to $31,000 annually, never the full $40,000. George says they tried to be as resourceful as they could with the money but with rising costs, they were unable to make ends meet. Their program was the only adult literacy program in Terrace.
“We had a really good core of volunteers… it just seemed like there’s less of a commitment from the government in literacy, which is sad because the need is still there,” he says.
As a passionate reader and writer, George says his entire family is obsessed with books and can’t imagine a world without them. Opening up a page, he can travel to any time or place but thinks about how many of his students may not be able to experience that magic found in literature.
Although the society has closed, he still has a lot to fight for. He tries to offer support to a possible emerging program in town but has decided to redirect his help elsewhere.
Almost three years ago, George’s daughter with special and physical needs passed away. Given everything he learned as a parent through her, he’s taken on an educator role at a child development centre. He says bringing people up is important to him and wants to continue doing that, no matter what their struggle is, and encourages others to do the same.
“As an educator, you always want your students to be doing better, that’s the ultimate goal. To help them progress past you and help them as individuals,” he says. “I know my daughter would have been very happy to have me helping other kids now.”