Editor's Note: The following article by David Sarasohn appeared in the January 2011 issue of Rotary Canada. As March is Rotary Literacy Month, it is a good time to highlight this story on the Parksville AM website, particularly as our Club, under the leadership of Jacqueline Russell, has been involved in the project on Penelakut since its inception. Photo shows Lieutenant Governor Steven Point with schoolchildren during an early Rotary visit to the Island.

Like most big things, the British Columbia First Nations literacy project began with a small conversation.

In late 2007, Lieutenant Governor Steven L. Point, former chief of the Skowkale First Nation and the province's first aboriginal lieutenant governor, was chatting with his aide de camp, Bob Blacker, past governor of District 5040. He asked Blacker what Rotary was doing to promote literacy.

Wonderful things, Blacker answered. There was a project in Indonesia, another in Malaysia, and some great efforts happening in Africa.

Very nice, said Point, who had made literacy a key focus of his term. And what was Rotary doing on the issue in British Columbia?
In your own backyard
According to Blacker, a member of the Rotary Club of Steveston-Richmond, the question transformed his thinking and shifted his focus to the creation of "an international project in our own backyard."

That backyard lies in the shadow of British Columbia's coastal cities, in a vast landscape of tiny, remote First Nations communities that are as removed from Victoria's tea shops as they are from the moon. On Point's recommendation, Blacker visited some of them and discovered how truly isolated they are.

One of the communities, Penelakut Island, was where Point had started a children's book distribution effort in May 2009. Says Blacker: "It's a 25-minute ferry ride from Chemainus," a tourist town with an outdoor mural gallery and a theatre festival. But, in terms of infrastructure and development, the two places are worlds apart. "It amazed me, going out to Penelakut Island," he adds. "You could say it's 3,000 miles away."

Blacker's conversations with Karen Milanese, principal of Kuper Island School and a member of the Carrier Nation from mainland British Columbia, made it clear how much support the community needed.

"I came to realize that quite a few people were nonreaders," recalls Milanese of her first days on the island, which has about 350 residents, 55 of whom are students in her school. "I started getting resources for the students in grades 10 to 12, but by January, I wondered why they weren't getting things done."

The reason was that most of them were reading at an early-elementary level. And their parents' reading level was also low.

"We also realized we'd like to have a library on the island to help the elders," Milanese says. "All they want to do is read to their grandchildren."

Point says that when Blacker brought members from the Rotary clubs of Chemainus, Ladysmith, Parksville AM, Qualicum Beach Sunrise, and Steveston-Richmond to visit the island, they said they "could help with at least eight projects right off the bat" in addition to building the library. One of those efforts was conducting a dental clinic. Staff, students, and alumni from the University of British Columbia's school of dentistry spent three days treating 73 island residents.

Milanese and the Penelakut also decided that the island, where most of the population is on public assistance and young people are unable to find work, needed a youth centre. Rotarians and community members have begun working with an architect and hope to begin construction on the facility later this year, Blacker says.

As Blacker visited other communities, often accompanied by Point, what he saw underscored the need to carry out development work in his own province. "We're hearing of communities so isolated, it's hard to understand how they exist," he says. "I've been to some communities - the majority of them - where I thought I was in the developing world."

Blacker brought Point to speak about his literacy work at a Rotary institute in Victoria in 2008. "Before I left the room," Point recalls, "clubs were coming up to me, saying, 'We want to help.'"

Rotarians' efforts on Penelakut Island have provided a model for Rotary clubs' involvement with other First Nations communities. Clubs help establish libraries and meet regularly with local leaders to identify their needs. Books are just the beginning, although literacy - including projects to stock libraries with materials for a variety of reading levels - remains the focus.

Britco Structures, a supplier for the 2010 Winter Olympics, donated a trailer used for the Games to support Rotarians' efforts. Orca Book Publishers has provided discounted or donated books, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has offered to help volunteers reach communities accessible only by boat or plane.

Moving exponentially
Blacker and Point already have visited 14 communities on the coast and deep in the provincial interior, from the Oweekeno in Rivers Inlet to the Lheidli T'enneh near Prince George. The duo also are developing a project with the Tsawataineuk in Kingcome Inlet, about 175 miles up the coast from Vancouver, in a community with no road access and powered only by diesel generator.

"We've moved exponentially," Blacker says. Point is equally enthusiastic about the effort: "I'm ecstatic. It's blossoming out now."

Though the two men have made significant progress identifying communities in need and finding partner clubs, the project is still in its infancy.

"The biggest step is that Rotary clubs want to help the community, want to help in their own backyard," says Milanese. Though not a Rotarian herself, she observes that Rotary club members "have a real big heart and a real understanding of people."

And a willingness to start conversations and see where they lead.