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An Interview with Janet Cloud

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In honour of CharityVillage®'s 15th anniversary, we celebrate this sector's changemakers, individual men and women who have made significant contributions to the nonprofit and charitable arena, making change and a difference in the lives of many. Due to their hard work and innumerable accomplishments (sung and unsung) we have seen this sector grow and evolve in the past 15 years, establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with. They make us so very proud and for that we salute them.

You might think the ability to read is a given, but in reality nearly one in four Canadians struggle with daily tasks that involve interpreting and understanding the written word. And the consequences of low literacy in this country are serious — including poverty, poor health and unemployment, along with the wasted potential of millions of Canadians.

Frontier College, a national literacy organization, began its efforts at the turn of the 20th century by sending volunteers to instruct labourers at rural mines and railways, where teachers worked alongside their students by day and taught them their ABCs at night. By the Second World War its focus shifted to urban centres, offering technical and community-based programming. Today, Frontier College offers a variety of programs including one-to-one tutoring, homework clubs, summer literacy camps, and training opportunities that help adults, children, and youth succeed.

Its services are delivered by volunteer tutors like Janet Cloud, who donates her time to work with young adults in Toronto's Beat the Street program. For more than five years, Cloud has taught writing, reading, and comprehension to youth who are preparing for their GED. She's also chair of the Frontier College Foundation's board of directors and on the Frontier College board of governors.

CharityVillage® spoke with Cloud about the challenges and rewards of tutoring, her memorable moments with students and how her hands-on experiences affect her work on the organization's boards.

CharityVillage®: How did you hear about Frontier College and what propelled you to get involved with the organization?

Janet Cloud: Somewhere between five and seven years ago I thought it was time to get back into some volunteer work, and saw a newspaper article about a Frontier College program called Beat the Street. It helps what the article referred to as "at risk" kids, meaning they're high school dropouts and the reason they dropped out was a bad family situations, trouble with the law, drugs, or some kind of abuse, things like that. They are kids that are trying to beat all of that and get their high school equivalency.

It sounded to me like the perfect moment to try and help someone in those circumstances, because if they don't make it at that point, it seems to me it can be a pretty bleak future. I found the program compelling and wanted to join to tutor those kids.

A lot of the motivation also has to do with my own kids and seeing how lucky they've been. There's so many kids out there that need help. It's just so unfair what some have and some don't, just because of the situation they were born into.

CV: What's the typical literacy level of students that you work with?

JC: I would say that in terms of vocabulary and general knowledge, it can be as low as junior high. What one doesn't realize until you're in [a tutoring role] is how much basic, fundamental knowledge one obtains through the high school years that you just take for granted; that these kids simply don't know. In addition to the massive gap in general knowledge, the real issue is always vocabulary. They know so few words that reading is difficult, boring and not any fun for them.

CV: What sort of changes do you see in the students that you work with?

JC: For the successful ones, it's life transforming. I have one student that went on to community college and then got successfully employed full time. I had another student that got directly into community college, then applied to university and has just been accepted. Other students, it is much less dramatic, but you see a real improvement in their comfort and ability with reading and comprehension. And you see a big sense of accomplishment and confidence.

CV: What's the most challenging aspect of tutoring?

JC: When they drop out, when they can't stick with it. When they have the aptitude and they have the intelligence, but they don't have the drive or the determination to persevere through the unbelievably hard work it would take them to learn how to study and pass the GED.

These kids are not stupid. The kids are there because they had some incredibly terrible hardships in their life. They're very intelligent. It's just the lifestyle change that is required, which is often more dramatic than the learning itself. Some of them can't do it and that's very, very disappointing, when I know someone has the ability to do what's needed but it's just too hard, so they drop out.

CV: Do you ever find yourself playing the role of more than a tutor?

JC: It kind of comes with the territory. You can end up working with people for a year and after awhile they trust you. They start asking your advice or telling you about what's going on in their lives and so naturally, one responds as a concerned adult as best as one can.

CV: Do you have a most memorable moment with a student?

JC: There are loads of them, but a real high point for me was when I went to a student's graduation from community college. It was special because of the incredible achievement it represented and the fact that I had had a significant impact on improving someone's life.

CV: What are the rewards you get from volunteering?

JC: It's just the satisfaction of knowing that you were able to move someone from a very bad place to a place with all kinds of potential for themselves and their future. It's really that simple.

CV: You are also on the Frontier College board of governors and chair of the board of directors for the Frontier College Foundation. How has your hands-on experience helped you in your board positions?

JC: I think it makes it all that more real. It's not just dollars on the balance sheet and what's the bottom line. It's, "Oh my god, what happens if the funds aren't raised properly and you have to cancel or cut back a program?" And the understanding of what that means to the employees who staff the college and the learners who will no longer have access to services.

,strong>CV: How is tutoring different from being on the board? Does one impact you more than the other?

JC: It's a fascinating learning experience to see how a non-profit works and how charity organizations function, as I have only had [work] experience in the corporate world. It is rewarding to contribute to the governance and stewardship of such an important organization. But there's no question I prefer the tutoring — it's good for the soul.

Sondi Bruner is a Vancouver-based communications professional and freelance journalist.

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