British Columbia

Emotional reunion for volunteer tutor, 93, and student whom she taught how to spell

For 10 years tutor Jean Lee worked with Kevin Mardell, who has autism, to improve his reading and writing skills. Now, his spelling is "perfect," says Lee, who surprised Mardell with a visit at the Independent Grocer in Kelowna where he now works.

'He's a sight for sore eyes,' said Jean Lee about Kevin Mardell, who has autism and was struggling to find job

Jean Lee surprised her former student Kevin Mardell by visiting him at the Independent Grocer in Kelowna where he works. (Christine Coulter/CBC)

For 10 years, tutor Jean Lee volunteered to help Kevin Mardell with his reading and writing skills.

Mardell, who has autism, immigrated to Canada from South Africa when he was a teen, but after finishing high school in Kelowna, B.C., he struggled to find work.

So he turned to Project Literacy, a non-profit that provides volunteer-based tutoring, to improve his spelling. That's where he met Lee, who, over a decade, helped perfect his writing skills.

"His spelling is perfect now and he's just been fantastic, like a sponge learning everything I could put forth," said Lee, 93, a retired school teacher.

"He used everything we could come up with to help him learn and he did it diligently."

Lee and Mardell reunite five years after Mardell finished receiving tutoring at Project Literacy in Kelowna. (Christine Coulter/CBC)

It's been about five years since the two last saw each other, but last week Lee surprised Mardell at the Independent Grocer in the southern Interior city, where Mardell now works as a check-out clerk.

"It has been so long, too long," said Mardell, now 36.

Lee was overcome with emotion at the sight of her former student.

"I promised myself I wasn't going to cry, but he's a sight for sore eyes," she said of Mardell.

"He just looks like a wonderful young person, and he's done so well. And it's all because of his own efforts that he's done this."

Learning journey

Lee has been a volunteer at Project Literacy for more than 30 years, but the 10 years spent with Mardell brought him a long way.

"She didn't get frustrated with me. She often complimented me on the good parts I did, like the neatness of my spelling, even though the spelling was bad," he said.

Lee praised Mardell's diligence.

"He worked a long time to make the changes," said Lee. 

'He's done so well, and it's all because of his own efforts that he’s done this,' said Lee. (Christine Coulter/CBC)

She isn't surprised that Mardell has a job now.

"I knew he would achieve anything he [went] for," she said. "It was about 10 years we worked and he made progress every year, and he received an award for it."

In 2007, Mardell won the Canada Post Literacy Award for most improved literacy skill. Lee travelled to Vancouver with Mardell to accept it.

"It was quite a surprise to me. I just did my best with what was given to me," said Mardell.

Looking back on his time in the literacy program, Mardell feels it definitely "makes a difference."

"You were such an appreciative student," added Lee. "You just wanted to learn and that was your goal. And he went through all the materials we had in the program."

With files from Christine Coulter and Daybreak South