Third in a series on adult literacy from 2014 Gzowski Life Literacy Fellowship winner Susan Quinn
Learning to read has led Steven Mulvey of Port Alberni on a tumultuous journey, but by no means is his story unique to adult learners.
Mulvey was diagnosed with dyslexia—meaning he has difficulty reading, writing, spelling and decoding language—when he was in elementary school. Dyslexia is said to run in families, and Mulvey’s grandmother and uncle both dealt with similar learning disabilities.
While he may have difficulty reading, Mulvey became an expert at memorization—which kept his teachers and his mother from discovering his learning disability. “They didn’t figure out I’m dyslexic because all my spelling tests I would memorize the night before,” he said. “I passed right underneath the radar because of my memory.
“Because I couldn’t read I found ways around it so my comprehension and problem solving were as above average as my reading was below.”
He was held back in Grade 2 and Grade 6. His mother, who worked alternately as a waitress, construction flagger and at Home Hardware, helped him where she could, even acting as his scribe in History 12. “She enjoyed it because she learned history,” he said.
Where Mulvey differs from some adults who are illiterate, though, is he sought a solution. He turned to Literacy Alberni at the urging of his mother, who he says is responsible for him even graduating from high school.
Once he graduated, Mulvey discovered there weren’t any programs available at the time where he could continue with his learning. “When school ended there was no more help,” he said.
“I wanted to work with my hands and I wanted to make a lot more money. I put them together and found a job I wanted (welding). I had to upgrade my reading for blueprints and whatnot.”
At Literacy Alberni Mulvey was paired with volunteer tutor Hugh Anderson, a former Member of Parliament who also spent more than a decade with the Port Alberni Port Authority and who openly admitted he started tutoring at Literacy Alberni to carry on where his late wife left off.
“He didn’t push,” Mulvey says of Anderson. “Everybody’s doing that nowadays. He didn’t push me to do anything, which gave me more motivation. It felt like I was making all the decisions.”
Tutoring sessions weren’t cookie cutter—Anderson was learning along with Mulvey. They both had a love of cars, and that common bond helped them get to know each other better.
“The best part of reading things with him…it wasn’t ‘read this’. It was read this, and if I didn’t understand something he knew about it and told me more about it. Reading is pointless unless you have a purpose for reading.”
Mulvey and Anderson worked together for nearly three years until this past April, when Anderson died of a stroke.
“Hugh began his volunteerism with Literacy Alberni Society (LAS) the year before I started in my current position,” executive director Charmead Schella said. “Hugh tutored four days per week with us, assisting learners in their aspirations of obtaining Canadian citizenship and achieving functional literacy. He was tireless.
“Hugh brought Steven from a Grade 3 reading level to the point where Steven obtained his welding ticket and is now gainfully employed…
“Hugh leaves behind him the legacy of municipal politician…national politician…entrepreneur, farmer, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, mentor and friend,” Schella said.
Opportunities have opened for Mulvey since he upgraded with tutoring at Literacy Alberni. He obtained his welding and forklift tickets, and is presently working as a labourer for Bowerman Excavating.
“I have been called by Seaspan for an apprenticeship, so I might be getting into the shipyard in Victoria (as a welder),” he says.
If he is not called to go to Victoria, he will move to Nanaimo so he can be more central to other welding positions. “I might do some business courses in my time off. If I’m in Nanaimo, I’ll have the university there,” he said.
Mulvey said the structure of going to Literacy Alberni at least once a week was good for him.
“I would go there once a week then go to INEO and make appointments for that day,” he said. “It helped me organize my life around the frequency of going once a week.”
After Anderson’s death, Mulvey decided to take a break from his tutoring sessions at Literacy Alberni, but continues with some of the activities he learned from Anderson. Mulvey still reads the newspaper for current events, keeps up with politics “like Hugh would do” and is reading a series of 14 audiobooks by the late Robert Jordan called the Wheel of Time.
He has a piece of advice for people thinking of volunteering with Literacy Alberni, as Anderson did: “To be a volunteer for literacy you don’t have to be the best or the brightest. Even with learning how to read with Hugh, we learned a lot of things talking to each other because we had different perspectives on what we did read,” he said.
Next week: An innovative program teaches parents how to read to their children.