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Giving adult learners an Edge

St. Vital program builds up language, job skills

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Toula Papagiannopoulos (from left), Jason Hussey, Miles Murphy, Joan Embleton and Elena Cvetkovska help out at Edge Skills Centre.</p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Toula Papagiannopoulos (from left), Jason Hussey, Miles Murphy, Joan Embleton and Elena Cvetkovska help out at Edge Skills Centre.

Three people and three lives, changed for the better:

Jason Hussey was reading at a Grade 3 to 4 level;

Elena Cvetkovska, who is originally from Macedonia, found her lack of Canadian work experience was preventing her from finding a job as an administrative assistant;

Abdoul Toure could speak some English, but needed to learn more.

Today, Hussey is reading books and getting ready to apply for a new job, Cvetkovska is an administrative assistant at Teenstop Jeunesse and Toure can keep up in conversations in English, thanks to the Edge Skills Centre.

The Edge Skills Centre is a not-for-profit, charitable organization in St. Vital that is helping adults with employment, literacy and language skills.

The organization began 28 years ago at Victor Mager School to address the low-income and high-transiency rates faced by the parents of local children. Back then, the name was the Victor Mager Adult Education programs. The organization became Edge in 2012.

When many people think of St. Vital, they think of the new subdivisions with large homes and a modern shopping centre.

The reality is that in three neighbourhoods — St. George, Lavallee and Worthington — 22 per cent of the residents live below the poverty line and 42 per cent don’t have a high school diploma. About half of the households are single-parent families, many of them mothers who either are earning low incomes or are on income assistance. St. Vital has the highest rate of child poverty, at 20.5 per cent, of any suburban city ward.

Thirty years ago, Jan Smith was a provincially funded community liaison worker at the school. She said she was sent there because the province realized residents needed help.

Two years later, Smith founded what is known now as Edge and became its first executive director.

"It was identified as a high-needs area," Smith said. "And, with immigrants and refugees, there were more people coming into that area with high needs."

Smith said at first they brought the Boys and Girls Club into the school —the first time the organization was in a school — and then they started a literacy program.

"We started it because we saw when parents were struggling with literacy, it affected their children. And then we saw people couldn’t get work and if only they could get some training and introductions, that would help them."

That was the first Edge program, then called the Victor Mager Adult Education programs.

"We didn’t really know what we were doing," Smith said. "We just set it up."

Smith said support from school administration and the parent association was critical.

"We all wanted it to be a true community school," she said.

"The school is for the kids, but also for the parents and for the community. It’s a tribute to what Edge does for it to still be around today. I’m thrilled it is."

Funding for Edge’s programs comes from the provincial and federal governments as well as from donations from The Winnipeg Foundation, Assiniboine Credit Union, and individuals.

Miles Murphy, executive director of the Edge career program, said the first job program was called Mager Women Working, which gave training to single mothers on social assistance whose children were enrolled at Victor Mager School.

Now the organization’s career program is a full-time pre-employment preparation and job-skills training program, open to low-income families with dependent children under 18, adults who earn less than $23,298 annually, adults on employment and income assistance, and immigrants and federally sponsored refugees.

Murphy said the program features academic upgrading, on-the-job training, work experience, and jobs.

"These are jobs at Manitoba Hydro, MPI, the City of Winnipeg, and Assiniboine Credit Union. We help define a career path. This is for people wanting to make changes in their lives."

Joan Embleton, executive director of the Edge literacy program, said they make it clear to employers when clients are placed on a three-month internship that — barring something unexpected — they’re hiring a new long-term employee.

"We don’t want to take them off welfare and put them into a low-paying job — and we don’t want them to be out of a job after the internship ends," she said.

Both Murphy and Embleton have heard that not only do their clients get jobs, but also, in several cases, have been promoted within the various organizations where they are employed.

Murphy said another key partner of Edge is the Morrow Avenue Child Care Program, which prioritizes day care spots for children of Edge clients.

"That’s a huge support," Embleton said. "Often not having daycare is the biggest barrier. You want to work or take a course, but you can’t find day care."

Edge’s career program helps up to 70 people per year, the literacy program had 99 people enrolled in it this year, and the English-as-an-additional-language program serves about 150 adults every school year and provides on-site child care for about 60 children per year.

Embleton said that Edge has helped about "5,000 people whose lives have changed, and who knows how many children have been helped?

"We’ve always known that if you help the parents, you help the children."

Audrey Owens, chairwoman of Edge’s board of directors, said she used to work for the organization and saw so many success stories that she still wanted to be connected to it after she retired.

"I’ve seen husbands and wives say their goal was to come to Canada, get a job and then fit in," she said.

"With Edge they get the language help and then they can transition to the career program and then get a job. The community drives the need. If the people weren’t there, the program wouldn’t be needed."

Cvetkovska said she came to Canada in August 2014 and worked as a front desk agent at a hotel. She joined Edge in April 2015.

"When I couldn’t get a job here as an administrative assistant, my sister-in-law told me about Edge. Because I came with a pretty skilled background, the program was easy. Now I’ve worked 11/2 years as an administrative assistant and I am pleased that I can help others.

"If not for Edge, I don’t know how I would have found the job."

Toure said he came from Mali in 2015 and enrolled in Edge’s EAL program. He graduated earlier this month.

"This program will help me be more integrated in the community," he said. "Now I can easily understand what people are saying. Before I used to hide. Now I feel comfortable wherever I go."

Until Hussey, 43, came to Edge, he couldn’t read well.

"I could read at a Grade 3 or 4 level. I was able to get through life by, if I had a problem, to ask someone or Google it. Google has been life-saving for me.

"I’m reading a book right now, Dexter. I couldn’t have read a book like that before. Edge Skills will change my life."

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Kevin Rollason.

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