Program helps mothers develop love for reading


Literature for Life is a program designed to promote literacy and enhance reading among young mothers in marginalized communities.

Since its establishment 11 years ago, the organization has handed out over 20,000 new books to some 1,900 young mothers – the majority from the African-Canadian community – who have participated in its flagship service program, Women with Words Reading Circles.

For 10 months each year, pregnant and parenting mothers join the circles at youth centres and shelters across the city to read and discuss novels and other books with trained facilitators.

Like many non-profit organizations, however, Literature for Life has not been immune to the global economic downturn. From nine circles two years ago, there are now six and there is concern there could be further shrinkage.

This does not sit well with Toronto lawyer Julian Falconer who was the keynote speaker at the organization’s third annual fundraiser last week at the Royal Bank of Canada.

“That can’t be right,” said Falconer. “There are too many people with power in this room that can affect that outcome. Each circle cost $10,000. Find the money and give them back their nine circles. Stop the nonsense.”

It costs about $1,000 a month to run the 10-month program and that money goes to the facilitators, field trips and other literacy activities.

The organization’s funding comes from private donors and other individuals.

The Toronto District School Board appointed Falconer to chair an independent inquiry into the safety of students across the school system following the death of Jordan Manners at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute in May 2007.

“As we went about our task and we told the counter-narrative and said it’s just not about young Black kids in Jane & Finch, we would be met with the same thing time and time again which was ‘it’s fine for you to say that, but what about what is going on in the homes’,” Falconer said.

“Jo has done just that. She created a program that goes into the home because that’s what these circles are.” (Jo Altilia founded the program 11 years ago.)

Literature for Life ambassadors Roots Kizzy and Jennifer Graham spoke glowingly of the program at last week’s event which was aimed at raising $50,000.

A graduate of Downsview Secondary School and mother of a young son, Kizzy is enrolled in York University’s International Development Studies program. She also volunteers with Creating Global Citizens and Firgrove Learning Centre and is a program leader with Redemption Reintegration Services.

Kizzy is featured in the Literature for Life documentary, Women with Wordz, which was screened at the fundraiser.

The mother of a seven-year-old girl, Graham admits she was turned on to reading by a book she saw in a circle in 2001.

“This program has given me a voice to shine with other young mothers and help uplift them,” said Graham who wants to be a high school teacher.

Tamara Shelly, fundraising chair for this year’s event, recalled Graham not having any interest in reading when she joined the program.

“She has come a far way and the beauty is that it has really transcended through her daughter who is engaged in books,” said Shelly.

A public relations executive, Shelly has always had a passion for books. She has been volunteering with the organization for just over a year.

“My mother was single and she always encouraged me to read and that’s why I value it so much,” said Shelly. “Reading has always been a big part of my life.

“My mom was in one of those shelters that we do our programming and she pointed it out to me one day. I was shocked because I didn’t know she lived in a shelter. She later told me that if she got money, she would give it back to the group at the shelter.

“I later found out, when I started volunteering with the organization, that they do programming here and I thought this is my way of giving back for my mother. I was just supposed to volunteer for one event, but I just continued on from there and I just developed a love once I learned about the mission and the core belief that a mother is a child’s first teacher.”

“This program is unique because there is no judgment or hierarchy. We are all equals and that is what the beauty of our reading circles is. We learn as much from the program participants as they learn from us. We learn together through a book.”

Award-winning poet and Literature for Life facilitator, Jemeni, was the evening’s host while television host and journalist, Valerie Pringle, was the evening’s honorary chair.

“This organization is an absolute gem, partly because no one else is doing it and I think because it addresses such an important area of social injustice and it intervenes at such a critical point with young moms and their children and there is such an opportunity there,” said Pringle. “The genius is seeing this and acting and reaching out and making a difference…I think it’s a lovely concept to think of a mother as a child’s first teacher and supporting that mother and giving her the skills, the tools and really the self-esteem as well to move forward and to be able to make a difference and make changes in her own life.”

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