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Fostering organizational resilience and innovation in times of crisis: Literacy Ontario Central South

Faced with the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, literacy organizations in Ontario have had to navigate keeping their programs running while also accepting the need to change how they operate.

It’s a challenge Literacy Ontario Central South region has faced – and met – over the past year, while deepening support for staff, volunteers, and learners alike in the process. In late 2020, ONN met with Carrie Wakeford, executive director for LOCS, and Stacey McQuoid, secretary for the LOCS board of directors. McQuoid is also the program coordinator at the Trenton office of Community Learning Alternatives (CLA), a community-based Literacy and Basic Skills (LBS) agency in Hastings County. They offered insights into sustaining and innovating during a crisis.

“Shortly after we started to work from home, we knew this was far bigger than anticipated, and we would not be returning soon,” says McQuoid. “We had to consider ways to support learners and each other in the long term.”

One of 16 regional literacy networks in Ontario, LOCS provides resources and planning support to LBS organizations in five counties: City of Kawartha Lakes, Haliburton, Hastings, Northumberland, and Peterborough. As literacy groups closed their doors, LOCS took on a number of actions to support organizations so they could keep doing their work – online and off.

LOCS arranged for regular Zoom meetings for regional LBS organizations to share tools and resources, and to collaborate and check in with each other. The organization also set up a Slack account for the LOCS region for more regular, informal sharing of resources, and also planned online workshops for professional development. Individual team members also found ways to increase their skills.

“In terms of our programming, we really had to be innovative; however, this innovation has been great for me, in terms of professional development. I have been able to enhance my skills, particularly my digital technology skills. So, the innovative programming to meet our emerging community needs has been excellent on a number of levels, for learners and staff alike,” McQuoid says.

Community volunteers have also helped. For instance, a volunteer facilitated a workshop “Resilience – the Art of Pivoting,” and other organizations have been able to share information about supporting volunteers.

One key element to this pivot was being aware that not everyone has equal access to programs, says Wakeford. “One of the things that we developed was an ‘Introduction to Zoom’ workshop for people who’ve never experienced an online platform like this. LBS and Employment Services partnered to create a program that introduced this technology in a fun way.”

Organizations in the LOCS region continue to look for ways to build opportunities for online training, including staff and volunteers. Many organizations have moved their programs online and found ways to support volunteers remotely as well, Wakeford says.

“We wanted to share information, to get the word out that ‘hey, we’re still here and offering support.’ We decided to put together a marketing committee of representatives from different regions.”

The idea came out of discussions about bolstering the organization’s social media presence, according to Wakeford. This led to an online social media workshop for the LOCS region. “LBS offers one-to-one support and we offer group training and workshops, which is all fantastic, but in our marketing we really wanted to speak to the people we are trying to reach. So we shifted our message to focus on the benefits for the individuals who attend LBS programs,” she says.

McQuoid points out that agencies offer essential skills development and training. “Our holistic approach to training focuses on an adult learner’s goals, for employment, postsecondary training, or independence, for example, which is very appealing to our learners.” LBS can provide the workplace skills individuals need for success on the job or in an apprenticeship, in addition to supporting individuals in preparing for success in post-secondary programs.

LBS programs support individuals working on their learning plans, but also help connect people with community programs and services, including public health and government information, something that has been even more important this past year.

By reaching out, LBS programs can also help to reduce social isolation. “We all worked together to help support the move to online and telephone-based programming, checking in with learners and tutors to see what might work best – and just to ask how people were doing. People soon realized they could meet more frequently to ask questions, offer support, or exchange ideas,” McQuoid says.

“In LBS, we are a sharing community, whether it be with resources, ideas or curricula. The pandemic has enhanced our culture of sharing even more.” Wakeford agrees. “It’s been one of those silver linings, for sure,” she says.

“LOCS also hosts quarterly meetings in each county with our community partners where we all come together to share information about programs and services, so everyone has current information and referrals are supported. This always leads to discussions about needs in the community and creative ideas for partnerships. However, this past year, it also became a great way to offer support to each other, reduce our own isolation, and share strategies.”

Looking to the future – and past the pandemic – Wakeford and McQuoid see a continuing need for flexible and relevant literacy support across Ontario. Workers on the ground are able to see opportunities for training that can help fill local employment gaps, for instance.

“We have always worked closely with Employment Services and employers and see these relationships getting even stronger as the labour market shifts and people consider new options,” Wakeford says.

While in-person learning will always remain an important part of their work, literacy organizations will continue to build online programming. Provincially, LBS has access to a growing network of online programs. The challenge is ensuring learners have access to computers and affordable, reliable Internet coverage. People who don’t have access to technology or stable Internet have faced additional challenges during the pandemic.

“LBS can help individuals, however, we will need to all work together to solve the big picture challenges such as Internet in rural areas,” Wakeford says.

Read more about how literacy organizations are supporting decent work while navigating the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic: Sustaining a culture of care for staff and volunteers: Community Literacy of Ontario


John Saunders

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