By James Rose
james@columbiavalleypioneer.com

Invermere, Oct. 1. Nine in the morning. Sandy Kalesnikoff arrives at her Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy (CBAL) office on the corner of 8th Ave and 10th St. Maybe you’ve heard of CBAL, maybe not. CBAL develops, promotes and delivers free literacy programs and services for people of all ages in the Columbia Basin and Boundary regions of B.C.

In Sandy walks into a tidy rabbit’s warren of books, bulletin boards, desks, papers, computers. There’s dictionaries, thesauruses, stacks of paperbacks and magazines. There’s a classroom with a few tables and a whiteboard. Behind the classroom, there’s office space with a little kitchen area and a restroom. CBAL’s Windermere Valley outpost is lived in. But it’s clean and absolutely the opposite of grey, corporate, boring. Home to this space is a lean operation of community-minded literacy advocates. 

Sandy, dressed in Smart Business Casual, is busy before she sits down. Her temperament matches the day’s weather: warm, bright, sunny. She’s articulate. As CBAL’s Windermere Valley Community Literacy Coordinator, Sandy runs the show and has for the past three years. Before, she was in a different CBAL role. She moved to Invermere 26 years ago, Castlegar born and raised. Mom and grandma, both librarians. Mom, Castelgar’s children’s librarian for the past thirty years. Before CBAL, Sandy was an early childhood educator. She never wanted to be a librarian — too much paperwork. 

Sandy exhales, sits down and begins her day. Her to-do list is long. She’s thinking about future programming. Old programs to bring back, new ones to introduce. Doing her job well requires nimble thinking, resourcefulness. She has people to hire for staff soon departing. She’s paid for no more than twenty-one hours per week. She’s not in it for the money. Her yardstick for career success, it sure isn’t money. It’s about educating. She’s in it to improve the communities between Spillimacheen and Canal Flats. Improvement how? Through literacy. Reading, math and writing literacy. Family literacy. Financial, digital and intergenerational literacy. English language and access to government services literacy. To Sandy, a literate community is a healthy community.

She has endless emails to write and respond to. Sandy will email for a while and then move onto something else. She has to prioritize, there’s no other way. There’s a grant she wants to apply for that requires a detailed budget. Grant writing is a skill unto itself when you run a regional non-profit. The grant would fund a new program to help the many university students in town as a result of the pandemic. Ryan Watmough, Columbia Valley’s Economic Development Officer, collaborated with Sandy to think of ways to address this new post-COVID community need. “It’s early stages, but we are thinking of a program for university students to be matched with mentors in their field of study. Nursing students matched with working nurses. Business students matched with the valley’s business people,” Sandy said.

Meanwhile, slated on CBAL’s programming schedule this morning is time for drop-in appointments. Sandy writes an email, begins another one and in walks someone looking for more information about CBAL. Sandy spends an hour advising this person and then returns to what she was doing once the individual leaves the office. But then she receives a phone call from one of her staff in Canal Flats. Sandy takes the time to help organize with her staffer the programming in Canal Flats. 

And since it’s the first day of October, Sandy is putting together the final touches on CBAL’s fundraising campaign known as Reach A Reader – Books for Kids. “We raise money to purchase books for the Book Under Every Tree Initiative and for the Book Bike program that runs in the summer,” Sandy said. 

Book Under Every Tree is a partnership with the Columbia Valley Food Bank and the Christmas Bureau of the Columbia Valley. “We collect books and use cash donations to purchase and then organize books for all children 18 and under.” The books are for families registered for a Christmas Food Hamper. CBAL also provides books for adults. 

“The Invermere Rotary Club donates to Books Under Every Tree each year, providing us with the funds to purchase books for youth, as this is the age category that we receive the least amount of donations for.” Books for Kids also funds the Books for Babies and Books for Toddlers programs.

It’s a busy day, it’s a normal day. “Sandy is one of our veterans,” said CBAL’s Executive Director Desneiges Profili from her office in Trail. “She is instrumental for the mentorship of other practitioners.” 

Across the Columbia Basin, CBAL has 16 community hubs with programming offered in 77 communities. There are 147 full and part-time staff, seven board members, 338 volunteers, 258 planning committee members and 177 partnering organizations. Last year, CBAL had revenue of $2.1 million, 90% of which came from grants. The grants come from a variety of sources, including School District #6 (SD6), College of the Rockies, Decoda Literacy Solutions and the Columbia Basin Trust. 

For example, CBAL’s StrongStart program is funded by SD6. StrongStart is a learning program supporting children’s access to free high-quality learning environments. The way it works is a qualified early childhood educator leads learning activities, including stories, gym time, music and art to help kids prepare to succeed in kindergarten.

The Columbia Basin Trust provides the non-profit with about a quarter of its annual funding each year and has had a long, productive history with CBAL. And of course, without the Columbia River Treaty, there’s no Columbia Basin Trust. In 2001, the Trust led the merging of Project Read East Kootenay and West Kootenay to create the Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy.

“[CBAL] began by bringing together people active in this area from a couple of towns,” said Greg Deck, a founding director and past chair of the Trust. “Rather than just fund them individually, the Trust encouraged them to pool their talents to create a template that featured the most successful elements of their programs and then to help them find like-minded people in all our communities to use Trust funding to deliver that program throughout the basin.”

Leona Gadbsy, the founder of the original Project Read program, remembers a particular “aha” moment in the history and development of CBAL. “Funding was always an issue, and it occurred to me at a lunch meeting I was at in the West Kootenay to look toward the Trust for support,” Gadsby said from her Invermere home. Her aha moment occurred in the Trust’s late 90’s salad days. The two organizations were perfect matches.

“Leona and Jennifer Cliff-Marks [founder of Project Read West Kootenay] endowed CBAL with a culture that lives on to this day,” said Profili. “Their drive and desire to help people develop literacy skills to function in the world in a caring manner it’s a hallmark of CBAL.”

But with the onset of COVID-19, CBAL had no choice but to adapt its programming slate and delivery method. CBAL’s programming season mirrors the school system. This fall, the following services are offered: RhymeTime Zoom, StrongStart, CAPC Play & Learn. English Conversation Class, Storytime on YouTube, CBAL Office Hours, and Grab and Go Activity Packages. 

“If anything, COVID given us new insight on how to deliver our programming,” said Profili. “Like how Sandy came up with the Book Bike idea this past summer of getting books to readers. It was so well received, we implemented it in other communities in the Basin. It’s had a huge impact.” 

It’s important for CBAL to not offer duplicating services in the community. The role CBAL plays is to identify and fills the gaps to be a first mover in responding to the community’s literacy needs. Think of CBAL as a speed boat compared to the ocean liner school district.

Avoiding the duplication of services is a primary reason for why three times per year, the Community Learning Planning Committee (CLPC) meets. Members include the Invermere Public Library, SD6 and First Nations groups. Programming priorities are revisited each year. Last year, programming was focused more on employment and digital literacy skills. For the 2020/21 season, the three prioritized areas of learning are intergenerational learning, First Nations reconciliation and adult literacy. Maintaining the CLPC is also necessary to continue receiving grant funding from Decoda Literacy Solutions. Decoda is the only province-wide literacy organization in B.C. It provides resources, training, and support for community-based literacy programs and initiatives all over the term province. 

Sandy finishes her day by preparing the CBAL classroom for the evening English Conversation Class from 6:30-8:30 p.m. This is when Laila Jensen takes over as an instructor. Laila is a certified English as a second language instructor. She’s got an MBA and an undergraduate degree in linguistics. She and her husband made the permanent move to the Columbia Valley several years ago from Alberta and are now semi-retired. She loves her job with CBAL. 

“I meet the most interesting people,” she said. “They’re so brave, and their stories are so inspiring. Such a refreshing perspective on life in Canada.” Laila teaches students from all over the world, including Switzerland, Indonesia, Mexico, Japan, and Morocco. Laila can relate to her students. She too come from a first-generation Canadian family. “My parents came to Edmonton from Denmark,” she said. “And back then, there sure weren’t the support services like there are today for newcomers.”

That night, two students were in attendance, with a journalist sitting in the back observing. Ni Luh from Bali, Indonesia and Francisco (Frank) from Guadalajara, Mexico, James from the Pioneer. Ni Luh is part of Copper Point Resort’s Housekeeping Team. Frank runs with his wife Marisol the Conrad’s Kitchen + Grill in Radium. They have two young kids. 

Frank and Ni Luh are attending Laila’s class to improve their English language skills – a critical part of the points based evaluation system Immigration Canada uses when granting Permanent Residency visas. Frank’s family and Ni Luh are on temporary work visas right now. Marisol couldn’t make it that night.

Laila begins class with an announcement. Her two students are sitting at their desks, ready to learn, eager. The evening light fades in concert with the sound of passing traffic. Laila announces that the month of October will be her last as an instructor. She and her husband sold their house and are moving to the coast. Their home lasted just four days on the red hot Columbia Valley resale market. Frank and Ni Luh are visibly disappointed.

“But you’re the greatest teacher!” Ni Luh says. “I’m going to miss you.” To the journalist in the back of the room, it’s immediately clear there’s a real connection between teacher and student. Sandy, working in the back office, comes into the classroom to say she’s already on the hunt for a new instructor. Class proceeds.

Laila: “Lets get to work.” Papers shuffle, pencils sharpened. “Lets start with five words that begin with ‘mis’ and five words that end in ‘able’.” Laila’s first exercise is on prefixes and suffixes. Ni Luh and Frank get to work. Laila waits and then asks for answers. Ni Luh offers misleading. Frank, misdirection. They both offer misunderstanding. Laila is impressed at their improving grammar and vocabulary. “And how about for able?” she asks.

Frank: “Unavailable.” Ni Luh gives her answer, and they move on. Laila gives a brief lecture on the anatomy of a sentence, including nouns, adjectives, subject and object. And then she asks for a prefix to turn able to its negative form. The students spend more time on this one. It’s tricky. After a few misses, Laila gives relief. “Unable,” she says. Frank and Ni Luh write it down. Laila praises her students for using strategies for locating words when they are having difficulty finding the correct prefix. Frank first offered “not able.”

Laila moves on. Her next module, active vs. passive voices. She asks: “Why would we want to change a sentence from passive to active in the first place?” And answers her own question. It’s about learning to emphasize aspects of a sentence. Ni Luh and Frank work through a list of sentences passively written. Laila wants her students to convert each sentence from passive to active. A little while later, they together work through several sentences as a class.

Reading comprehension comes next. Ni Luh and Frank each read short passages aloud, and then Laila asks the listening student questions about the story. The class is about halfway through now, and there’s fatigue. Learning English is challenging, tiring. They take a quick break. Frank tells a story of a recent English test he took. Laila offers her advice for the next time he takes a test, and then they dive back into the material.

The next reading involves going over who John A MacDonald is, his positive legacy, but also why he’s been in the news lately. Laila leads a discussion of how some Canadians, by today’s standards, view certain MacDonald policies as insensitive. Laila also points out his phenomenal accomplishments in nation-building. She acknowledges he wasn’t perfect. Laila explains what confederation meant and the difference between Upper and Lower Canada. In Laila’s class, there’s a combination of Canadian history, reading comprehension, and vocabulary building. It’s an intelligent approach.

They move onto another passage of reading. Frank proceeds: “In the Spring of 2020, a worldwide cry went out to remove statues of controversial historical figures.” The passage discusses what happened in the wake of George Floyd’s untimely death in the United States. Laila remarks to the journalist in the back of the room that the material she teaches with, sourced from ESLlibrary.com, is mostly American oriented. A point of frustration. 

Frank finishes his reading. The class discusses the story’s subject matter. Here and there, Laila stops to make sure everyone knows certain words. She asks Frank what ‘symbolizes’ means. 

“Like…represents.”

Laila: “Yes, good work Frank!”

Ni Luh begins reading another passage, but it’s 8:30 p.m. now, and class is over. Frank and Ni Luh exhale. Laila says they will continue the exercise next week. They resume their casual conversation. Ni Luh asks about Laila’s departure again. “Are you still going to teach until the of October?” Laila confirms she will and talks about why she’s leaving and how she’s going to miss the valley. “I like it here,” she says. 

So do Frank and Ni Luh. Two newcomers to the Columbia Valley enthralled with the area’s quality of life, employment opportunities, and the free services available to them through organizations like the Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy. Ni Luh smiles. “I hope I can stay here for the rest of my life.”

The next instalment in the Columbia River Treaty Series explores the role the Nature Conservancy of Canada has played in preserving Columbia Basin sensitive ecology