After years in prison, Dennis Rouleau has learned to calculate the lowest common denominator and has found peace in numbers.

He has spent seven stints in prison and been committed to a mental hospital more than 10 times. The last time he regained his freedom, four years ago, he knew he needed something to keep him focused on a better future.

He decided on mathematics.

Rouleau enrolled in Project Adult Literacy Society (PALS). The Edmonton-based not-for-profit has been helping adults advance their reading, writing and math skills for more than 30 years.

"It's given me structure," said Rouleau. "I come to math classes and computer classes and I have something to look forward to."

Today, PALS has more than 150 volunteer tutors, and helps educate around 300 people a year.

Without a basic education, even the simplest tasks can be impossible, said Monica Das, the math literacy co-ordinator at PALS.

Learning the basics of language and arithmetic empowers her clients in surprising ways, she said.

"No matter how much you offer them, food or housing or health services, if they do not know how to read the prescription … or if they do not know how to get to the food bank and how to take the transit system, it all relates.

"It all ends up with literacy."

Some of her clients are upgrading their skills to get into college or earn a trade certificate. Others simply want help in their everyday lives.

Annette Gaudet was diagnosed with dyslexia when she was 13.

After years of feeling inadequate, enrolling in the program helped restore the confidence she lost as a child in the classroom.

"When somebody tells you that you are stupid, lazy, dumb, over and over again, your self-esteem is pretty low," she said. "I wanted to be able to understand what my kids were bringing home from school."

Gaudet said she was barely able to read before she started working with a tutor.

"I basically started at approximately a Grade 3 reading level and I'm probably now up to about a junior high. This place has pretty much saved me."

'I spent too many years drifting'

Rouleau has similar feelings about his relationship with staff at PALS. He credits the program, and his tutor Jennifer Russell, for keeping him out of jail.

With a full head of grey hair and a crushing handshake, Rouleau cuts an imposing figure.

But when he's in the classroom, working out formulas on the board, the quiet and conscientious student gives no hint to his troubled past.

He has struggled for years with mental health problems, including bipolar disorder. After becoming addicted to meth, he began dealing drugs and stealing to feed his habit.

'I had to look inside myself and decide I was going to be a man.' -Dennis Rouleau

Addiction was the beginning of his "downward slide," he said.

"I was using drugs and alcohol to numb the pain," said Rouleau.

"I know that sounds like a cop-out, but it was working for a while. And it just became time to change. I had to look inside myself and decide I was going to be a man, not a boy anymore.

"I spent too many years drifting."

'I've turned my life around'

Dennis

Dennis Rouleau works through some equations with his tutor, Jennifer Russell. (Tim Adams/CBC)

After being released from Alberta Hospital in 2014, he was placed in his first apartment in 20 years, and began exploring ways to get back into the workforce.  He was determined to never see the inside of a prison cell again.

"It had to be the last time I went to jail," he said. "I have to have goals. I can't go back to jail. I can't. It sucks the life out of you."

Rouleau's social workers suggested he enrol in the PALS program to get his "self-esteem back," and he began taking classes every week.

After graduating from the program, he now hopes to get a full pardon for his crimes, so he can attend college and become a healthcare aid for the elderly.

"I feel great. I have some purpose now," Rouleau said. "I know I'm going to do good in my life. I've turned my life around."

 

With files from Tim Adams