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'Everybody wants to succeed'

Adult Learning Centre celebrates 10th anniversary

<p>Aj'a Oliver is a community support worker at Kaakiyow li Moond Likol Adult Learning Centre.</p>

DANIEL CRUMP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Aj'a Oliver is a community support worker at Kaakiyow li Moond Likol Adult Learning Centre.

They say, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear" — but in the middle of one of Winnipeg's toughest neighbourhoods, it's not that simple.

For Aj'a Oliver, a single mom with four children who grew up amid the fallout of colonization — residential schools, domestic abuse and addictions — getting an education and off social assistance seemed out of reach.

Then, she stumbled on a hidden gem in her Lord Selkirk Park neighbourhood: an adult learning centre at Turtle Island Community Centre that residents rallied for when the public housing project was revived more than a decade ago.

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They say, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear" — but in the middle of one of Winnipeg's toughest neighbourhoods, it's not that simple.

For Aj'a Oliver, a single mom with four children who grew up amid the fallout of colonization — residential schools, domestic abuse and addictions — getting an education and off social assistance seemed out of reach.

Birthday bash

Click to Expand

Today, at 11 a.m., Kaakiyow li moond likol Adult Learning Centre is celebrating its 10th anniversary at Turtle Island Community Centre (510 King St.).

Then, she stumbled on a hidden gem in her Lord Selkirk Park neighbourhood: an adult learning centre at Turtle Island Community Centre that residents rallied for when the public housing project was revived more than a decade ago.

Today, Oliver has a job she loves, is attending university, and is one of an estimated 90 grads from the program, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary Thursday.

"It was hard being a single mom on social assistance, living in poverty and surviving with my kids," said Oliver, 35.

<p>Damian Abraham uses the computer lab to research for an article he is writing about powwows and traditions of Sagkeeng First Nation.</p>

DANIEL CRUMP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Damian Abraham uses the computer lab to research for an article he is writing about powwows and traditions of Sagkeeng First Nation.

She had a baby at 17, and didn't finish high school. Sixteen years later, she was walking her youngest child to school and noticed a sign for a "free adult learning centre."

Two years after that, Oliver was walking with her youngest child to the stage to receive a high school diploma from Kaakiyow li moond likol Adult Learning Centre.

"To me, it was really important," said Oliver. She values education and wants her children — ages 18, 16, 12 and seven — to see their mom practising what she preaches. The students who attend Kaakiyow li moond likol, which is Michif for "All peoples' school", have noticed learning is infectious, too, she said.

"People see you succeeding and say, 'I want a piece of that.' Everybody wants to succeed. Nobody wants to live on social assistance."

After getting her Grade 12, Oliver began attending classes at the University of Winnipeg urban and inner-city studies program (at Merchants Corner on Selkirk Avenue). "I never thought I would be in university," she said.

Another opportunity arose when a community support worker position opened up at the Kaakiyow.

"I got the job. I was so excited and happy," Oliver said. "I'm reaching out to people, offering the hand that I once grabbed for."

<p>Muhubo Abdulahi Works on a math assignment.</p>

DANIEL CRUMP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Muhubo Abdulahi Works on a math assignment.

Kaakiyow was created a decade ago, in response to Lord Selkirk Park residents saying they wanted a chance to get their high school diploma and find a path out of poverty. Ample evidence shows higher education leads to higher incomes, better health and society benefits, as a whole.

The Winnipeg School Division geared class times to adults who need to pick up their children from the nearby elementary school. Kaakiyow follows the regular school calendar but offers continuous enrolment.

The key to its success is the connection staff makes with the adult students, who face many challenges, said Oliver. 

She said she stopped attending classes, twice, when the challenges got to be too much for her. Both times, school staff went to her home to see what was wrong and how they could help. One such instance came after she was assaulted, she said. "I felt unsafe. I didn't want to leave my house. I was totally traumatized." 

Kaakiyow staff visited her, concerned for her safety, and offered to walk her to and from school.

"They pulled me out of a dark place. It shifted my state of mind," said Oliver. "I decided, 'I'm not letting this take over my life.'"

At 33, Richard Daniels sees a much different future for himself than working as a labourer just to collect a paycheque.

<p>Richard Daniels will be graduating from grade 12 this year at the Kaakiyow li Moond Likol Adult Learning Centre.</p>

DANIEL CRUMP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Richard Daniels will be graduating from grade 12 this year at the Kaakiyow li Moond Likol Adult Learning Centre.

"I'm tired of doing that," said Daniels, who graduates this year from Kaakiyow.

While attending classes, he volunteered with a youth program and worked part time at David Livingstone School's lunch program. "It was a great experience," said Daniels, who has applied to take early childhood education at Red River College. 

Daniels, who has roots in Peguis First Nation, wants to teach pre-schoolers in a Head Start program, helping them learn numbers, colours, letters, and gain a positive sense of self.

"I remember being told these things by my teachers," he said. "It's definitely rewarding to see a smile on their face when they achieve that." 

He found attending classes next door at Kaakiyow with his neighbours made going back to school less intimidating.

"We help each other out. Everyone's really supportive," he said.

"It's about being gentle, supportive, and always meeting them where they're at," said Christa Yeates, who has taught math at Kaakiyow since 2008.

Mearle Chief, who was a social worker with a love for reading before going back to school to become a teacher, has made it her mission at Kaakiyow to share that love. "I hope by the end of my courses, they do find a passion or an interest in reading."

Their students' successes are breaking the cycle of poverty, said Oliver, whose teenage daughter will graduate from high school this year.

"This has changed not just my life, but the lives of my children."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Carol Sanders.

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