'One of the greatest gifts': Edmonton artisans use words to raise funds for literacy

When Shawn Griffiths moved to Edmonton from Kingston, Jamaica, 10 years ago, he brought a secret with him ー his lifelong struggle with reading.

45 per cent of Albertans struggle to read or write, says Centre for Family Literacy

Courtney Hanak (left), of Williamraedesign, and Kelly Klapstein, of Kelly Creates, combined their skills to raise money for the Centre for Family Literacy. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

When Shawn Griffiths moved to Edmonton from Kingston, Jamaica, 10 years ago, he brought a secret with him — his lifelong struggle with reading. 

"Learning to read and write in Jamaica was a bit challenging for me, because of how people view someone who has a problem or trouble with learning," Griffiths told CBC News.

"I didn't want anyone to know."

Now 39, Griffiths turned to the Centre for Family Literacy for help in 2008, shortly after arriving in Edmonton.

"They helped me to achieve a lot of things in my life," Griffiths said. "Now, I'm open about it. Because I think one of the greatest gifts I get is to come here, and learn and improve my life."

The Centre for Family Literacy, a not-for-profit organization, develops and delivers family and adult literacy programs in the Edmonton region.

Shawn Griffiths describes how his reading and writing improved thanks to Edmonton's Centre for Family Literacy. 1:04

The centre says around 45 per cent of Albertans struggle with literacy. That statistic made Edmonton business owner Courtney Hanak want to support the organization.

"It just made us really sad," Hanak explained. "This is our way to help out and get more people to learn how fun literacy can be."

Hanak, who owns Williamraedesigns, teamed up with Edmonton-based calligraphy artist Kelly Klapstein to create wooden signs decorated with messages related to reading. 

Proceeds from the sale of the signs will be given to the Centre for Family Literacy. The women are hoping to raise $5,000 by Dec. 20.

"Reading is such an important part of life, not just for a practical skill, but also for escape and imagination," said Klapstein.

"For me, reading is pretty much everything."

Calligrapher Kelly Klapstein is a former English teacher who wanted to share her love of reading and writing with others. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

'Elephant in the room'

The Centre for Family Literacy supports approximately 10,000 people every year, said director of development and community engagement, Donna Lemieux.

"We always refer to it as the elephant in the room," Lemieux said. "People are not going to say, 'I struggle with reading and writing.' They hide it. But literacy impacts so much of people's lives."

The charity relies on volunteers and donations to deliver its programming, which targets preschool children and adults. 

The centre's clients are diverse, from newcomers learning English, to parents who want to read to their children, Lemieux said. 

"We don't put them down, we build on their strengths," she said. " You see their confidence build."

Donna Lemieux says many people who seek help from the Centre for Family Literacy, like Shawn Griffiths, need to improve their literacy for work. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

'A great achievement' 

Many adults who struggle with literacy develop coping mechanisms to hide it, but major life events, like the loss of a job, force them to confront the problem, Lemieux said.

"They're unemployed and they realize the skills they need to get a new job, they don't have." 

Griffiths needed to pass a theory exam to apprentice as a welder when he moved to Canada. After receiving a grade of 24 per cent on his first attempt, he knew he needed help. 

Through the centre, Griffiths was diagnosed with dyslexia. He was given tools to overcome his learning disability. 

"I started doing things more physical, more hands on, more auditory," he said. "It improved my skills and it improved my life." 

On his last welding exam, he received a perfect grade, he said.

"That was a great achievement, to get 100 per cent. When I saw it, I was like, 'No way.'

"That feels good."

About the Author

Josee St-Onge


Josee St-Onge is a journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has also reported in French for Radio-Canada in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Reach her at josee.st-onge@cbc.ca