For 45 years, Kingston Literacy and Skills (KL&S) has provided free language training to members of the community. The organization, which was first launched in 1977, has proven to be a valuable tool for those looking to expand their “soft skills” such as reading and writing, while also providing English language training services for immigrants and refugees.
“We really have two sides to our services,” notes Christianne Wojcik, Executive Director of KL&S. “One side is open to anyone who walks in the door, and that is what we call literacy and basic skills training. That can be upgrading in reading, writing, math, computer skills, and pre-employment soft skills: things like conflict resolution, communication, time management, budgeting, all of those things that are [the] required building blocks to be able to enter an apprenticeship program, go back to school, [earn] your secondary school credentials, or get a new job.”
Wojcik continues, “The other side of our service is English language training. And that is provided through Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to refugees and newcomers to Canada.” The agency works with a wide range of new Canadians, some of whom have absolutely zero understanding of English prior to arriving at KL&S, with the ultimate goal of helping them gain the language skills required to obtain Canadian citizenship.
“This is [an] essential service to not only allow them to begin to learn reading, writing, listening, and speaking in English, but also to learn about Canadian culture and how to better stabilize their lives and those lives of their families here in our community,” Wojcik says of the role KL&S plays in helping Kingston’s immigrant population. “We provide a lot of engagement through guest speakers, cooking classes, shopping excursions to Loblaws and the bank, and teaching our learners how to function at a very basic level for the first time in a Canadian community.”
Forty-five years in operation is a significant achievement for any not-for-profit organization. According to Wojcik, the milestone would not have been possible without the dedication and support of members of the community, especially those who have been involved since its early days. “At the start of this agency there were no real full-time employees; it was almost entirely volunteer-driven for the first number of years…. Volunteers are what kept us going for many years before we had things like core funding from the federal and provincial governments.”
When asked what has made KL&S such a successful organization for over four decades, Wojcik credits the agency’s commitment to accessibility. “We have really prioritized going out and offering services in spaces in the community to be as accessible as possible to anyone who needs that. There are no barriers to participation, and there’s never a cost… It’s really [about] trying to meet learners where they are [so that] access to learning [is] not an issue.”
As with many other organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic forced KL&S to transition to an online delivery model, which proved challenging, especially for those whose English language skills are still developing. “[The pandemic] was very challenging here because [many] of our learners struggled to access reliable technology, or they’re language learners [who] don’t speak English. So adapting them to use Zoom [and] engage for long stretches of online instruction was really challenging. We did what we could to power through that and bring learners back as quickly as we could,” says Wojcik.
Besides the pandemic challenges, a fire in December 2020 caused significant damage to the site, forcing staff and learners to shift once again to an online model. Wojcik says, “The fire hit us in the midst of the pandemic, and the [rebuild] was heavily impacted by things like supply chain and workforce availability. It took us a full year from the point of the fire for us to be able to reopen in-person services here. So, it was quite an act of resiliency.”
However, despite the challenges over the last few years, Wojcik says the organization has learned a great deal, as it adapts to the modern realities of language learning. “Because of the timing of [the fire], we were able to remodel our space with a mind towards functioning in a post-pandemic world. We did that with insurance proceeds. Instead of having to do capital campaigns or request money from our donors, we were able to make very deliberate careful decisions about how we renovated to come back with a site that is very accessible, hands-free, [and] responsive to health and safety. Things like genderless washrooms, COVID-safe furnishing, lots of spacing, Plexiglass, etc. … [We improved] our technology and infrastructure so that we came back from the fire really ready to teach in this space, for the next 10 to 15 years.”
This Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, KL&S will officially celebrate its 45th anniversary with a special event at Kingston’s Memorial Hall, with speeches from Mayor Bryan Paterson and MPP Ted Hsu, as well as select volunteers and previous learners. The event will begin at 6 p.m.
“It’s a time for reconnection among those who have been involved with the agency for many decades,” Wojcik says. “We have invited current and past stakeholders, including volunteers, staff, and some students who have asked to be included in this because of the success that their engagement with this agency has allowed within their [personal and professional] lives.”
Those interested in learning more about the services offered through Kingston Literacy and Skills, and about volunteer opportunities, are encouraged to visit the KL&S website.