She was 53 and had struggled for years with labels on medications, grocery lists and client reports. She grew up with three brothers and eight sisters and remembers the embarrassed frustration of falling behind in school. She failed a couple of grades and left classes after Grade 11 to help care for her sister's son.
Richards said it was frightening to start the adult basic education class that has vaulted her to a Grade 10 reading level. But she has not looked back and, in a province that ranks almost last for literacy in Canada, she wants to spread the word about what's possible.
"I never stop reading," Richards said in an interview. "I want to help people not to be afraid. There's always someone out there to help you learn."
An international literacy report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2013 found that Canada ranked just above average among 24 participating countries and regions.
Among provinces and territories, Yukon, Alberta, B.C., Ontario, Manitoba, P.E.I. and Nova Scotia were above average among those aged 16 to 65, according to the report. Trailing behind were Quebec, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories, Newfoundland and Labrador and, finally, Nunavut.
"Our skills are more in the hands and of the land," said Caroline Vaughan, executive director of Literacy Newfoundland and Labrador. Off the urbanized northeast Avalon Peninsula where St. John's and most major businesses are based, the focus traditionally has been more on fishing than formal learning, she added.
"It's a question of how do we transfer some of our skills and build strengths in the academic area."
The brain drain as young, educated people leave the province for work has also affected literacy rankings, Vaughan said.
Literacy N.L. is an umbrella group that helps co-ordinate programs across the province. But its own future is uncertain as federal funding dries up and it awaits news of whether the province will support it.
"Otherwise, we'll be closing our doors April 30," Vaughan said.
Advanced Education and Skills Minister Clyde Jackman said the picture is brighter for younger people, especially those aged 16 to 24 who meet or exceed Canadian and OECD averages. That said, the province has spent almost $77 million on adult literacy programs since 2003.
"While we are seeing success in some areas, we still have significant challenges in literacy and numeracy. However, these are challenges we are aware of and are addressing," he said in an email.
Rob McLennan, director of employment services at Stella's Circle in St. John's, often meets adults struggling with basic reading who wish they'd received more help in school. Many who summon the courage to return to the classroom battle apprehension and almost zero self-confidence, he said.
"It is a social justice issue and it is all about inclusion. You are excluded from so much if you don't speak the language."
Richards, who last fall won the national Council of the Federation Literacy Award for the province, now reads newspapers, history books and mystery novels. She's working toward her high school diploma and plans to train as a personal care attendant after that to work with seniors.
Her newfound self-esteem is just one of so many changes since she went back to school, she said.
"It makes a world of difference."
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