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HELPERS: 'Phenomenal experience,' joy in guiding adult learners

At the Gateway Centre for Learning, Catharine Gastmeier has helped adults who struggle with literacy learn to read since 2017. 'It’s a phenomenal experience'
After volunteering with the Gateway Centre for Learning to help adults with their reading skills, Catharine Gastmeier says: “Gateway Centre for Learning doesn’t write the beginning. They write the middle. Learners write the end.” Supplied photo

Catharine Gastmeier says she wasn’t a teacher, and she’s not a writer, but she describes her volunteer work as a tutor at the Gateway Centre for Learning in a very poetic way.

“Gateway Centre for Learning doesn’t write the beginning. They write the middle. Learners write the end,” explains Gastmeier.

The Gateway Centre for Learning is an adult literacy centre that helps people meet their goals for reading, writing, math and computer skills.

Gastmeier has been volunteering with the centre since 2017.

She says she heard the executive director speak at a function and was intrigued by the work. She started helping fundraise, and now she tutors people to help them develop stronger reading skills.

As someone who has volunteered with different organizations since the 1980s, Gastmeier says she’s doing something at Gateway she never did before  — one-on-one tutoring.

“You can’t imagine how exciting it is to start with someone on their path to a goal,” says Gastmeier.

As for the learners themselves, Gastmeier notes that they come from so many different experiences that it opens your eyes to how many people can slip through the cracks in education.

“You would be absolutely shocked at how well people can cover up that they have difficulty with basic reading,” notes Gastmeier.

She says she has worked with people that never learned to read, and others who are dyslexic and struggle with reading and math, and still managed to graduate from high school.

The International Dyslexia Association notes that 15-20 percent of the population has a language-based learning disability.

Of those identified with a learning disability, 85 percent have difficulty with reading and language processing.

Drawing on her work in her previous career in the finance department of a large corporation, Gastmeier says the difference between someone who struggles with literacy and those who don’t is their ability to glean information quickly and at a glance from a contract or financial documents to sign at a bank.

“[People who struggle with literacy] have to ask questions to get the same information we get at a glance,” explains the seasoned tutor.

Gateway helps people with basic reading, writing, math and literacy so they can better understand a contract, job application or legal document.

“I get to help someone connect with the first step on their journey,” says Gastmeier, who is careful to point out that the learners’ private lives remain just that, and that her role focuses solely on the learning.

For someone without previous teaching experience, Gastmeier says volunteering to tutor with Gateway is easy. The organization provides all the training you need, they are very supportive, and they give you leeway to be creative in how you get the learner to connect with the content.

Gastmeier has focused on reading, joking that math is not her strong suit.

For reading and comprehension, Gastmeier uses Canadian authors, who are not afraid to use the vernacular. She says Linwood Barclay’s books are about everyday people that live in regular places getting into irregular situations. Barclay is an American-born Canadian author with a few titles on the New York Times Bestsellers list.

Gastmeier also enjoys using Shari Lapena books. Another Canadian author with a few titles on the New York Times Bestseller list.

“If anyone knows Lynwood Barclay or Shari Lapena, and can ask them to donate copies of their books, please do,” jokes Gastmeier.

Bookmark is the secondhand bookstore run by Gateway and is always accepting donations.

Gastmeier says it’s fantastic to ask a new learner what they're interested in and then have Gateway find a book about that subject on the shelves of Bookmark.

“It’s hard for them to read something that does not connect with some aspect of their life,” explains Gastmeier.

“The first time you see the light come on, and you know that you’ve made a difference,” explains the engaging tutor, “It’s a phenomenal experience.

“I do like to see people smile and laugh and achieve that very first step,” says Gastmeier.

“You hear them pronounce a word you know they wouldn’t have attempted six months ago, and they ask if that’s right, and it is. It is the best moment.”

Gastmeier says she volunteers for one hour once a week — that’s how long it takes to get a haircut, she laughs.

“If you’ve got an hour, you can make a difference,” she says. “There is no charity that I know of in this town that won’t open the door and train you.”

If you’re interested in learning how you can help, Gastmeier says make a donation or volunteer.

“They can always use more volunteers. People who don’t have money think they can’t do anything to help, but they can give time and time is one of the biggest gifts.”