Paulina Mason used to struggle to comprehend printed words and sentences.
Ten years later, the Nelson native is an aspiring author, a literacy advocate and the recipient of a local award that honours dedication to a task most take for granted — reading.
Mason, 28, was feted Friday by the Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy (CBAL) with its ninth annual award handed out to an adult literacy student, while Kootenay Co-op was also recognized for its commitment to learning in the workplace.
A decade ago Mason had just finished high school when her mother Barb asked CBAL to help her daughter.
“I learn by visuals and sounds, symbols and pictures,” said Mason. “The old school way, sound this out, figure that out, I can’t do that because my brain doesn’t click to that.”
She describes her first tutor, a woman named Ellen, as a grandmother to Mason. “It’s nice to have that support other than school. Just knowing that someone wants to help you and see your progress in a good way, it was awesome.”
Community literacy co-ordinator Joan Exley said Mason has progressed from pupil to volunteer mentor at CBAL.
“One of the things we know from literacy research is that as people become more literate, they become more involved in their community. They have a voice. They’re able to volunteer and they are able to participate in their own life and in society, and that’s exactly what I see in Paulina,” said Exley.
There are, according to Exley, plenty of reasons why adults have difficulty reading. Some have learning disabilities. Others never get the opportunities to learn. Sometimes, she said, illiteracy originates from childhood experience.
Mason would agree. She was just two when her parents Barb and Brent adopted her from an orphanage in Bulgaria and moved her to Nelson. The trauma from that early life stuck as Mason grew up.
“Barb did a lot of rebooting my system. I was very malnourished and very unloved by other [adoptive parents] and in the orphanage. Mom and Dad helped me. I got that love,” said Mason, who is now planning to write a book about the experience.
CBAL’s work isn’t about teaching literacy from baseline comprehension to Grade 12 equivalency, according to Exley. Instead, the organization meets students where they are and focuses on the learning they need.
Exley recalled a former student whose wife had died. After she passed, he realized he had never written a cheque or read a bill.
“We worked on with him how do you look at an invoice or a bill, what’s the important information? How do you read a cheque and put your information on it? Once he knew how to do that, that’s all he needed. So it’s very, very dependent on what the adult needs.”
The event doubled as a launch for CBAL’s Books Everywhere initiative.
Fifteen boxes will be filled with books and located around Nelson, while another three will be sent to the Slocan Valley and three more in Salmo and Ymir. Readers are encouraged to return their books to any of the boxes once they are finished reading, and then pick up another.
Exley said a smaller version of the program has already been a success.
“We’re a little bit picky in wanting to keep the collection’s quality,” she said. “We don’t want it to be a trashy, used books box. We want it to be a book that you want to share with someone else.”
A large group of current Kootenay Co-op employees and members were also present at the event.
Among them was Mohammed Msatat, who works at the grocery store after immigrating from Syria with his family in 2016. He was a furniture designer in Syria, and was hired to build the crates used by CBAL for Books Everywhere.
“He put absolute love and care into those boxes,” said Exley.