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EDS literacy program helps improve participants' lives

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Estevan Diversified Services (EDS) executive director Carol Cundall was recognized with the Professional Leadership in Literacy Award at the recent Saskatchewan Literacy Awards of Merit ceremony. The award reflects EDS's ongoing efforts to improve literacy among its participants.

Literacy has long been an important part of Estevan Diversified Services' (EDS) programming.

But in the last three years, the agency has ramped up its literacy efforts significantly. A resource centre has been added, which has enhanced the quality of life for EDS's participants.

The resource centre and the literacy initiatives have now earned EDS executive director Carol Cundall a provincial honour.

Cundall was presented with the Professional Leadership in Literacy Award, at the Saskatchewan Literacy Awards of Merit on April 23. She was nominated by the EDS board chair, but Cundall said her honour is truly a team effort, since the EDS board and staff are strong proponents of literacy, and have backed the resource room initiative.

"Literacy is for everyone, and sometimes I feel that our participant population – adults with intellectual disabilities – gets left on the wayside," Cundall told Lifestyles. "And the reality is that literacy is more than learning to read, write and spell proficiently."

It's learning to enjoy numbers and stories, she said. There's a numeracy component, along with social and safety literacy. And literacy can help people become knowledgeable about essential skills.

"We believe, as an agency, that literacy is all of those things, and that everyone can achieve some kind of literacy, if given the opportunities and exposure," said Cundall.

EDS partnered with the Estevan Area Literacy Group and the Estevan Public Library to formulate the now award-winning program, Cundall said.

"What we first recognized in our participants is there wasn't a literacy tool that worked well to diagnose what your literacy level was," said Cundall. "So we adapted one that's predominantly used for newcomers, and it seemed to work really well for our client population."

EDS took the time to understand how each participant learned, she said, so they could find the best way to assist their clients. The resource centre supervisor, program coordinators and individuals met to discuss short-term and long-term goals.

It's a different approach that has worked out well.

"It's on the needs of the individual, so not everyone's program is the same," said Cundall. "For example, once a week, a woman comes in to talk about what is happening in Estevan in the news. That's huge."

Someone else will come in and talk to other participants about sports, and guide them through sports magazines. Another individual encouraged participants to get a library card, and now so many EDS participants feel comfortable in the library.

"I think those are things that we take for granted," said Cundall. "The first time a couple of our individuals got their library card, they were so in awe that they now had a whole new world: videos, movies and magazines that they can take out."

The resource centre was an unused area of the EDS building for some time; Cundall compared it to an empty drawer in a cupboard at a house.

"To see this empty room always bothered me, and I had an idea that we could do more with it," said Cundall. "So our first step was to plan the room, and then to acquire some of the things you need.

"You have to make it comfortable. It should be professional. I didn't want this to look like hand-me downs. We wanted this to be an adult room where adults come to learn. So we purchased computers, we did magazine subscriptions, we have newspapers.

"We have everything in there now to get someone going. The big key was to find the diagnostics, to find the learners, to find the books that are at a younger level, but are classic books."

One participant's first book was Robinson Crusoe, she said. He loved to talk about the story after reading it. Then he went to the library, and checked out a book about a rescue dog's heroic story following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City.

Another participant, Darwin Styre, won the the Life Skills Enhancement Award from the Saskatchewan Association of Rehab Councils last year, thanks in part to the literacy skills that he picked up from the resource centre.

All 52 EDS participants have been involved in the literacy program in same way, although if a participant has full-time work in the community, EDS won't take them away from their job to have them into the program.

The literary resource program has had other benefits. Cundall warmly recalls when one participant made a phone call to his mother for the first time. When he heard his mother's voice over the phone, it was very empowering, Cundall said.

"That same individual now has an e-mail address, here at work, that we can assist him with, and he can e-mail family outside the province," said Cundall. "It's a way of keeping in touch so that you're not isolated."

EDS is going to see the literacy program through, Cundall said. They will continue to update their technology, and offer the latest reading materials. They have purchased a smart board to assist communications with those who can't talk.

"It's sustainable because this, to us, is a key area," said Cundall. "This is where we want to head with more individualized programming and more essential skills, because it's that knowledge you take with you and grow."

Cundall said the literacy honour is a reward for all of the work that everyone at the EDS has put into the program.

The Saskatchewan Literacy Awards of Merit recognize the outstanding contributions by Saskatchewan citizens, organizations, and businesses to improve and develop literacy and essential skills in the province.

Awards were also handed out for workplace training initiatives, outstanding literacy projects, volunteer services and learning efforts. Cundall noted that Lieutenant Governor Vaughn Schofield attended the awards event, that the awards night was wonderful, and that most of the recipients were volunteers.

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