C’mon. Read it. Whaddya mean, you can’t? If you wanted to badly enough, you sure could. Just, read it.

They keep it secret, but hundreds of adults in this region are getting through life without the ability to read. And while Canada’s literacy champion was the CBC’s Peter Gzowski, Barrie has its own literacy icon. Connie Morgan.

What motivates a young woman to spend 30 years--three decades--helping people learn to read? And where does that young woman get the commitment, the energy, the sheer willpower to build a community of volunteers ready to help others learn to read?

It seems like such a small thing on the surface, but illiteracy robs people of life itself. So much is closed to them, and subsequently to their families.

And that’s why Connie Morgan started the Barrie Literacy Council.

As a counsellor in the mid 70’s, Connie was working with a woman and her several children, teaching her life and parenting skills. The young mother was absolutely hungry for knowledge and Connie noticed changes each week. She also noticed that the mother tried very few of the suggestions Connie discussed and wrote down for her each week. Finally, in a moment of trust, the woman confided to Connie that she couldn’t read, and she was working only on the skills she could remember after Connie’s verbal instructions.

You might call that a defining moment. Or, a paradigm shift. Whatever, it caused Connie Morgan to shift her energy into a movement that has literally changed the lives of 1,770 of Barrie area residents in the past 27 years.

When Connie went looking for help for her young client, she hit a brick wall. No support of any kind. She found the Laubach Program, designed to teach people how to read and write, when it was focussed on a television show. She travelled to Hamilton, where the Laubach Program was based, and learned as much as she could. While there, she found there was also interest in literacy in Orillia and that’s where Connie focussed her first efforts.

She involved Orillia folks in her first tutor training workshop. She served on Orillia’s first executive. She wrote articles and took pictures for the newspaper at every opportunity, discussing literacy at every turn. Her stories hit the Barrie papers with frequency and she found herself receiving telephone calls from potential students and people volunteering to tutor at home. Together with another Barrie resident who’d attended the Laubach training in Orillia, they each took on three students whom they tutored in their own homes.

The Laubach literacy training program is based on a “each one teach one” and it’s industry standard for any literacy program. Each participant identifies their own goals, high school diploma, a certain grade in school, to get a job, to be able to do their banking or sign their kid up for school etc.

Good news travels fast and in a very short time, Connie was overwhelmed with need and she called on Laubach to set up a tutoring workshop in Barrie; 24 people became literacy tutors. The year was 1979 and three months after beginning the Barrie Literacy Council Connie gave birth to her first child.

That child, and those who followed, have never known a day when their Mom was not a champion of literacy in this region. Eight volunteers joined Connie to give birth themselves... to a new literacy group. One person “matched” learners with tutors. Another ordered books. The group operated on a cost recovery basis, since there was no funding. Students paid for their books, some people gave donations, but tutors were far too busy “doing” to even think about fundraising.

All volunteers worked from their homes, with the core group meeting monthly to establish policy and deal with growth. All the while, Connie’s new baby was packed along with her to meetings, to tutoring lessons.

With her eye on the big picture, Connie became a founding board member of Laubach Literacy Ontario, which eliminated the need for bringing trainers from the United States.

It was in 1987 (more than a decade after starting)that Connie got provincial money to help develop the Barrie Literacy Council. Connie spent a year setting up the newly acquired office space, hiring staff, and and then hustled back to serving on the Board of Directors where she remains.

It’s impossible to imagine literacy without Connie Morgan. In her quiet way, she has always been there. She supports tutors, she sees what needs done and does it. She works closely setting budgets, making recommendations and she writes the yearly business plan to ensure core services are achieved.

She has an active role on personnel and was involved in getting a Trillium Foundation grant for this year’s enormous literacy festival--The Road to Reading Festival--which will be held in Barrie in September. She’s also involved in workplace literacy for special needs people.

She doesn’t stop there. She still provides tutoring workshops throughout Simcoe and Muskoka. And her Barrie Literacy Council now has more than 90 active tutors, with tutor training conducted year round. She speaks enthusiastically about learning disabilities, reading comprehension, and literacy volunteers can count on Connie to bring the latest information to them regularly.

What has Connie achieved? She’s given people a place to come and learn how to read without fear of intimidation, embarrassment, cost, ridicule. She’s provided not only a healthy learning environment, but she’s been the coach for many volunteers who have decided to chane their own lives by helping out. She’s made not a commitment for this year or next year. She’s given the majority of her life, so far, to literacy.

And while this volunteer interest has been the fuel for Connie’s passion, literacy has had to play second fiddle sometimes to her other concerns. As her daughters grew, Connie was an active leader in Girl Guides and Pathfinders, as well as teaching Sunday School.

It’s a fitting standing ovation that occurred last Friday when Connie Morgan received a provincial award recognizing her contribution to literacy. The fifth recipient of the Frances Lever award, Connie is honoured officially by Ontario Literacy Council for her dedication and tenacity.

But, here at home in Barrie, we see her as the Reading Angel.

Just like that.

Thanks, Connie.

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