COLUMN: We’ll miss you, Joanne Harris

It’s an exceptional person who can start the day with the Isty Bitsy Spider and finish with The Hunger Games.

Joanne Harris at the Community Literacy Awards last year. From left

It’s an exceptional person who can start the day with the Isty Bitsy Spider and finish with The Hunger Games. When it comes to teen and literacy services coordinator Joanne Harris, it makes some sense: many of the teens who populate the library’s TeenScene first met Joanne during her Mother Goose sessions.

Joanne is retiring, and there’s nothing itsy bitsy about that, as generations will attest. Joanne has not just been an exceptional advocate for literacy, she has changed lives.

Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy community literacy coordinator Joan Exley first met Joanne in the 1990s, when her now nearly grown-up kids were babies. “Joanne has been committed to literacy for as long as I’ve known her,” she says.

Joan trained as a tutor when Joanne led Project Literacy West Kootenay. The two sat on literacy committees together and plotted ways to encourage love of reading in people of all ages. Parent Child Mother Goose, a place for caregivers and babies to learn songs together, was begun to fill a community gap in those early days.

Mrs. Mother Goose, as Joanne grew to be known, Roly-Polied her way into the hearts of everyone. Retired public health nurse Pat Gibson, who took the Mother Goose training with Joanne, brought her grandson to Joanne’s very last program. “Joanne’s dedication in supporting young parents was still obvious,” Pat says. “She paid attention to each and every parent and child, could pull out of a hat an appropriate rhyme and action, and keep us having fun.”

Nicole Cameron first met Joanne when she brought her baby to Mother Goose in 2004. Then new to Nelson, Mother Goose is where Nicole met other families, forming lasting friendships. Nicole’s positive experience led her to become a part of the Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy and facilitate Mother Goose herself.

“All those songs and rhymes have been handed on to the parents in our community,” she says. Now, Nicole sees the effects with her pre-teen daughter, “a prolific writer, full of imagination and language.” Nicole will carry on the Mother Goose tradition, and “as long as I’m facilitating Joanne will be there with me, reminding me — with a twinkle in her eye — about all the important stuff.”

A library staff member since 1985, Joanne began doing Mother Goose with children’s services coordinator Nancy Radonich as a partnership with CBAL, where “we bounced, rocked, and tickled our way through many babies and toddlers. We’ve laughed and cried together. For the sake of literacy we’ve roamed the schools on International Literacy Day stamping kids’ hands with the word READ.”

From the Reading Buddies Program, which saw Nelson Leafs hockey players help kids with reading and numeracy skills, to the A-Book-Under-Every-Tree initiative, for Joanne it’s always been about bridging gaps and building community. “Teens can be a tricky audience, but Joanne has created a vibrant teen program,” says chief librarian June Stockdale. “She encouraged the teens to lead, allowing them to share their unique talents and develop leadership skills.”

One mother of a teen concurs. Her son struggles making connections with peers because he has Asperger’s Syndrome. “A couple of years ago Joanne let him take the reins of a Wacky Wednesday program, turning it into a Magic, The Gathering card game tournament. The experience was a huge boost to his confidence in interacting with other people. I’ve always been grateful to Joanne for giving him that opportunity.” For other teens, Joanne’s insightful book suggestions kept the pages turning.

In the last couple of years Joanne earned the handle of Grandma Goose thanks to a new generation of wee ones in her own family. She’s also earned a Community Literacy Award, to be awarded on Family Literacy Day on Monday, Jan. 25 at 4 p.m. at CBAL, lower level of city hall. It’s a way to honour the way in which Joanne has always “held the ideals and philosophy of literacy close to her heart,” says Joan, who will present the award for CBAL.

No doubt there will be representation from the generations of readers that Joanne has touched, not many dry eyes — and possibly a round or two of Roly Poly for fun, and for the love of literacy.

Anne DeGrace is the adult services coordinator at the Nelson Public Library. Check This Out runs every other week. For more information go to nelsonlibrary.ca.