Success Stories

Paul Robson

When Paul Robson first received his air brake license, he could barely believe it was true. Paul recalls that moment almost as if it were a short rest stop on the road to reaching his goal of becoming a truck driver. “I always had to take it out and look at it and make sure that it was absolutely right, that it was on my license that I could drive a truck. I had to squint my eyes to make sure that’s what was on my license. I was really proud of that.”

 It had taken a lot of hard work and determination to get there. He had a number of friends who were truck drivers, and it seemed like something he would really like to do, but for a long time he hadn’t taken any steps towards that goal. He had held other jobs in his life, but he found his grade 3 level of education would often prevent him from moving ahead in them. “What was stopping me before was my education, unfortunately.” One day, while laid off from his seasonal employment, Paul came across the Valley Community Learning Association in Kentville.

“It was hard to walk through those doors. It was really hard to walk through those doors. I thought I had too much pride, I thought people were going to look at me and say all kinds of things…I just said, ‘I have to do it' because there’s stuff out there I want to do. I want to learn to read and write, I want to pick up a magazine or a paper, or if somebody asks me what that sign says, I want to tell them what it says.”

After going through the assessments Paul decided to begin the work necessary to obtain his grade 8 level education, which would help him qualify for trucking school. Paul started out with a tutor, and it was tough at the start. He began to rethink his plan to upgrade, and stopped going to the program. After a few days of his absence, the Executive Director called to check in on him. After discussing the challenges and various options, Paul decided to return to the program, this time in a classroom setting.

Paul says it took a lot of getting used to. “For the first year-and-a-half, I didn’t say two words. Everybody around me was getting up, reading stories and reading out loud. I just couldn’t do that. I just didn’t feel comfortable.” In the year-and-a-half that followed, Paul worked to change that. He gained his confidence, started reading out loud, reading the books and participating in the classes. Eventually, he signed up for another tutor, who became instrumental in helping him develop the reading, writing and math skills he would need for the air brake test.

After passing the air brake test, Paul would log his driving hours with a friend. “He said ‘if you want to drive, you get behind the wheel and drive,’’’ Paul remembers, as his friend directed him towards downtown in Halifax. “That traffic on Water Street was so narrow, a one way street, and I said, ‘am I going to get this truck through here?’ He said ‘You’re either going to do it, or you’re not.’ I drove right down the main street of Halifax and I went right through and never had a problem. So I knew from there, I knew that this is exactly what I want to do.” Paul went on to attend and complete a program at the Commercial Safety College in Truro. “It was really hard to do. It was a lot of work,” but now Paul is exactly where he wants to be.

Paul says it’s exciting to have gone from a grade 3 education to graduating college. “I’m really proud of where I am…it felt like look at that I was on unemployment and I needed some education, so I went in there and I got my education, it was exactly what I wanted to do…now I know I can pick up a book and read it. Or help somebody else with something.”

Helping others is an important part of Paul’s ongoing plan. He now sits on the Board of Directors for Literacy Nova Scotia, helping out with community events, sharing his ideas and telling his story, things he never imagined he would do. He’s also anxiously waiting for the day he can share what he’s learned to help others working towards their air brakes or truck driving tests. “I’ll give them all the information. Tell them what’s going to happen, what’s going to happen next and what they need to prepare for.”

Paul wants to help other people to know that change is possible, even with obstacles in the road. “I got something out of life and I accomplished something…Truck driver, it’s a great title!” And when he and his fellow truck drivers share stories on the road, Paul is proud to tell his story. “Sitting behind the wheel, that’s where I want to be. And by doing this if I can help somebody else, I really want to do that. I want to be more involved in the community, and for literacy.”

This story was written by transmedia storyteller and veteran journalist Asna Adhami and is based on a collaborative storytelling process.  Photos provided by The Valley Community Learning Association, courtesy and copyright the Province of Nova Scotia.

Here is a link to an article about Paul in the Register: 

Wayne Baltzer

My Life Story

My brother and I were held back until we were six years of age because we had a speech problem. Then I got to grade two and had a very troubled teacher who disliked boys. On top of that I was sitting at the back of the class and I was having visual problems; also I was very shy. Because of that I couldn't proceed to the next grade. After my second year in grade two I was sent to get a cat scan because they thought because of head aches I was having, I could possibly have a tumour. But they realized that the entire time I was having headaches and trouble seeing it was because I really needed glasses.

After finally getting glasses I went through grades 3,4, and 5. At the end of grade six the school was not going to let me proceed to the next grade, but I was given an option to take a new program held at Horton High School. I only had a grade two literacy level when I was in grade six, so going through the 7,8 adjusted classes was very difficult for me, but I got through and made it to grade 9. Only three days into grade nine, I was told I had to write a composition and then stand up and read it in front of the class. I wasn't ready for this and ended up getting frustrated. I left everything behind in my locker and never went back.

While at school I also caddied at a local golf course and held a part-time job at the IGA store in New Minas. Because of low self-esteem I started drinking when I was a young teenager (age 14). The summer of 1976, I started to look for work. By September 1976 I finally got a job at Scotian Gold as a general labourer; I worked for three years doing seasonal work and then was laid-off at the first of May (for the summer). On May 19, 1979 my future father in-law told me about a summer job at the Ralston Purina mill to do a little painting. As time went on I started unloading train cars, doing quality control and finally doing purchasing. I worked at the mill for twenty-five years.

I am married with three children and have my own home. As a hobby I started doing genealogy about 14 years ago. I also was a scout leader for four years from 1994 to 1998. In 1996 I went to the grade 5 camp because my daughter was in grade 5, so I went to help. I took a week off that year and also in 1997,1998,1999. and 2004 to help out and be a cabin leader and do other things.

In 2000 I started working on a map of Centreville of 1871 to 1881 to show people what Centreville looked like in the early years. (You can see this at the Centreville Hall) In 2000 I started a group called Burial Grounds Care Society. We locate old forgotten burial grounds such as the old poor farms in Greenwich and in Billtown.               

For a long time I would not tell anyone about the troubles that I had. I thought people might think that I was stupid.
In the winter of 1991 I took the 40-hour course for preparation for G.E.D, but I found it very difficult and didn't try again for another nine years. I started to tell a few friends about my learning problems and some of them encouraged me to get help. I was very nervous but I didn't look back. I went to a meeting where the people were talking about adult literacy. Then in November 2001 I went and got tested to see what level I was at. I was lined up with a tutor and we worked together for a year. We used to meet in his truck in the parking lot at the movie theatre because there was nowhere else to go. Then he decided that he couldn't do any more for me so we stopped. We are still friends to this day.

I was asked if I would like to be tutored in a group of people or one on one and I chose one on one because I would be too nervous with a group. In Jan. 2003 I was matched up with a new tutor and we worked on the Laubach Way To Reading Books 2,3, and 4 then the Voyager book for reading and writing, and Focus on Phonics 1,2, 3.  We also read some books: A Victorian Lady's Album, Kate Shannon's Halifax & Boston Diary of 1892 and The Good News For Modern Man. This last book was one that I got when I went to Sunday school as a boy. We read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

After 24 years at the Feed Mill I was laid off in June 2003, because of downsizing. This came as a shock to me. I received a year’s severance package that was paid weekly for a year. Then in Oct. 2003 I was called back again because they were short-handed and then was laid off again in Oct. 2004. After that I applied for 4 different jobs but was rejected because I didn't have a grade 12 or G.E.D.

I was walking in town one day and saw Peter Gillis from KCLA (now it is called Valley Community Learning Association – VCLA - since they started working in Annapolis County), and he called me in to chat. We talked about the adult learning classes that they provide there. I took a test and was put in level one but after three or four weeks I was moved to the level two class with Joy Power. On Feb. 04, 2005 my severance package was stopped and I had to quit the classes and find a job so I could support my family. I did continue to work with my tutors.

I wrote my G.E.D. in April 15 and 16, 2005 but I didn't pass. I kept on with my tutor two nights a week.

Most employers require grade 12, so if there wasn't a place like VCLA how would people like me who haven't completed grade 12, get help to write their G.E.D. so that they could get a steady job?

In 2005 when I was on unemployment, they sent me over to the Valley Disability Partnership Society. The Employment Office said I would find a job better with them so I went. I met the lady at the front desk (Cheyenna ) and after meeting with me she said that she thought I had dyslexia but she wasn't the doctor. She made me an appointment with Dr. Emily Freeman and she agreed that I did have dyslexia.

June 21,26,27 I wrote my G.E.D again, but this time with tapes so I could hear the words better and I passed all of them but one (the essay) - I missed that one by 10 points. So I started to get tutored in that one subject: Language Arts, Writing. I wrote that final exam Nov. 28, 2006, and passed it. I now have my GED!

Now the world is mine, the door has been opened at last. In March 24, 2007 I had a thank you party for every one that had helped me on my way to get my GED. I have been trying to give back to the VCLA a little. I gave two courses on how to start your Family Tree and the money I charge goes back to VCLA.

With my GED certificate I was able to get an interview with Michelin Tire, and on Feb. 12 2007 I was hired! I have worked there ever since. 

Gail Young

Gail Young worked for over twenty years in the meat cutting and packaging business; seven and a half years at Eastern Protein followed by thirteen and a half years with Maple Leaf. Twenty years of cutting poultry, thigh deboning, and sharpening knives came to an end in 2007 when the Canard Plant closed and Gail was laid off.

Gail Young found her way to VCLA through a friend—Joy Power, who is an instructor in the Working Learners Program.  After the Canard plant shut down, Gail started in one of the GED classes. “When summer came, Joy arranged job shadowing for me at Valley Denture Services for ten months. I was hired there after that and on payroll in 2008. I still thought about getting my GED, but now I had a job and “back to school” seemed unnecessary at that time. “

It’s not easy to go to school when you are working full time. “Joy did encourage me to continue with my education and eventually I did.  Joy is very strong-willed and persuasive. She doesn’t give up easily, and after 2 years I went back.”

The GED exam is an international credential comprised of five different tests covering reading and writing, social studies, science and math.

 “We were five to seven students in our class.  Math was a struggle. Social studies, Science and Language Arts Reading I got, but Writing and Math, - oh that was hard! I finished English at the second try and Math took three times to get. We usually had a lot of laughs in that class. Joy was always pushing us forward and even got me a volunteer tutor to help with my Math.  Finally, I passed all the tests and graduated in 2012.”

“I can’t thank Joy and everyone at the office enough, really.  The folks at Valley Denture Services were very good to me as well; homework had to get done in the evenings, at lunch time, or sometimes at slow times at the office.”

Gail’s days look very different now. Instead of cutting chicken she is looking after appointments, handling debit transactions and insurance claims, doing bookkeeping as well as making denture repairs. Many of these tasks involve strong math and literacy skills and she is putting her new learning to work every day and loving it. “I am happy to go to work every day, and it is certainly warmer than in the refrigerated meat plant. It’s also not as hard on your body.” 

Adriana and Oscar

A conversation with Adriana and Oscar, two learners in VCLA’s English as an Additional Language program.

Where do you come from?

We are from Bogotá, Colombia. Bogotá is the capital of the country. It is a very big city with about 7 million people. We can say that Kentville is quieter than Bogotá and less polluted. However, there is much more to do in Bogotá than in Kentville. We have enjoyed the cultural life of Bogotá and enjoy exploring the outdoors here in Kentville.

What brought you to Canada?

We came to Canada to experience another culture, study new languages, and start a family here.

How did you hear about the VCLA?

Oscar: I discovered the VCLA when I saw a pamphlet about ESL classes in Kentville.
Adriana: When I arrived in Kentville, my husband had already talked to me about the VCLA.

What are your classes like?

Our classes are very well structured. We take classes once or twice a week. We set our learning goals at the beginning of the term and then everything we study in class brings us closer to achieving them.

What are you learning?

We are learning tenses, vocabulary, cultural issues, and idioms. We are also improving our listening and reading comprehension and speaking skills.

What do you enjoy learning the most?

Oscar: I really enjoy discussions about interesting topics after we watch a video on the internet.
Adriana: At the very beginning, I enjoyed learning grammar, and now I enjoy practising speaking and pronunciation.

What are your goals for the future?

Adriana: I would like to be fluent in English to be able to get an entry-level job as an optometrist assistant. Later I would like to work as an optometrist, the job I used to work in in Colombia.

Oscar: My goal is to improve my English skills to be able to communicate with my students in their language.



Dana MacDonald

In 1984, I had my Grade 11 and I was four credits short for my full Grade 12.  However, at 18, I didn’t want to go back to high school; I had had a difficult time academically, I was bored and I just wanted to get on with my ‘adult life’.  At the time, I was eager to enter the NSCC Business Course despite only having my Grade 11.  Luckily, I was accepted with my marks, loved the Business Course and did very well.  I eventually graduated, married and settled in Halifax.  I signed on with a temp agency and landed a good job at Nova Scotia Power for eight years.  When we returned to the Valley, I held two jobs at once: one as a receptionist at a denture clinic and one as a cashier for the Liquor Commission.  After two years at that, I got a full-time job at CIBC, which lasted for 14 years.  I had been very fortunate with my career, and I was always able to land a good job considering that the subject of my lack of a full Grade 12 Education had never come up. I always knew that I wanted to finish my education, and I had looked into getting my G.E.D. several times over the years, but the timing never seemed right for whatever reason.  I was also afraid I wouldn’t be able to complete my G.E.D. successfully, so I just kept putting it off.

When I found myself unemployed for the first time ever at age 46, I finally decided that I had lots of time on my hands and it was time to take the jump and do it:  get my G.E.D.  I wanted that sense of ‘completion’ with my education.  I also wanted to set a good example for my own kids. So, I took the necessary steps to start the G.E.D. process and ended up speaking with Mr. Peter Gillis of The Valley Community Learning Association.  He, along with the VCLA teachers and students, could not have been more helpful and encouraging!  Everyone in the classroom was on the same page, no matter what background we were from or how old we were.  We were all there for the same reason.  It was a great feeling and I felt very welcomed.

I spent the necessary time required studying in-class, and weeks later, I wrote and passed my G.E.D! What a great feeling to know that I had been successful after so many years of being afraid.  I have since encouraged others to do the same.

Rebecca Thomas

When I was in school, I went as far as grade 11. I left school for a number of reasons, but as I’ve had my own children, I realize I should have completed school.

I began with VCLA in September 2012 to work toward achieving the GED. After achieving the GED, I will continue on to reach my goal of becoming either a hairdresser or a CCA worker.

Some of the hardest things about going back to school were finding time to spend with my two small children and being able to concentrate on school work at home too. Another hard part about going back to school was re-learning so many things all over again. It was difficult for me when I didn’t pass all the subjects on the GED on the first try knowing I’d have to do three of them again. Some of the best things about going back to school are realizing I can learn and finding out how I learn best. I am smarter than I thought I was. Another good thing about going back to school is, it makes me feel better about myself. It also helped having two wonderful teachers taking their time to teach me at my level of learning.

I had no confidence in my reading especially in reading out loud. I found it hard to read things with more difficult words, but now I realize I don’t have to be able to pronounce every word as long as I understand what I’m reading. If I look back on the first writing I did when I started, I can see such a change. Now I can write essays with good topic paragraphs and good sentences. My teachers are really proud of how my writing has improved. It’s important for me to do these things well so that I can help my children in their school work and just be a better role model. My math has gone from me being nervous about doing fractions to being able to do hard word problems using algebra and geometry. I didn’t realize I had it in me to do all of this.

A while ago I volunteered in a nursing home where I did a variety of things: set hair for senior ladies, played games, fed people, made beds, and did other tasks for nearly a year. It started when I was in school, and then I just kept doing it. This was very rewarding work. I was given a letter of reference and appreciation for it. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to do more volunteering once my children are older.

I have found that I am a very organized person whether it’s just at home doing household jobs or at school. My son Bradley just started school this year and now my daughter is in day care, and I need to keep things going. During the week when we’re all going different places, I plan the time to spend with my son and daughter, time for my homework, and time to do house work. I like to keep in contact with the school and go to parent and teacher interviews with my son’s teacher, too, to make sure things are okay for him at school. This is important because I want him to keep liking school so that he’ll stay in school. If I was a disorganized person, I’d have a hard time getting things done. At home, I am the person who looks after paying the bills and planning how the money will be spent or if any can be saved.

My personal plans for me are to be able to fend for myself and earn a living for the three of us. I want to help my children realize how important and fun it is to learn. I want to be able to plan for the future and make some of our dreams come true. My career goals are to complete my GED and become a CCA worker or a hairdresser.

Returning to adult upgrading has probably been the smartest personal decision I have ever made. It will affect my life and my children’s lives forever.

Donald Dunn

In the know is where you belong
Dwell not upon second-guessing
Silent calm will ease upon you
And the guide will stay intact

These are the first lines of a poem that open the latest book of poetry by Donald Dunn. Donald is one of the authors who works with Sophie Bérubé and Marie White at Open Arms on Tuesday mornings as part of our creative writing program.

Open Arms is a drop-in resource centre and Christian ministry with a location on Cornwallis Street in downtown Kentville. VCLA has been partnering with Open Arms for three years to offer creative writing workshops for participants.

Donald’s 2015 collection of poems is called In the Know. Here is what he said about his work with VCLA:

I first became involved with Valley Community Learning Association (VCLA) through the creative writing workshops with Marie and Sophie offered by VCLA at Open Arms in Kentville. My interest was in poetry.

I have published four poetry books with VCLA support. I felt very good when I published my first book. It is something that I always wanted to do and I really enjoy writing books, it gives me a sense of fulfillment. My books offer a sense of hope and inspiration to others and for me that’s my reward.

When I write, I don’t have it all in my head, the words flow and it just sort of comes together and I write it down. I need a quiet environment. I feel a sense of peace and serenity when I write poetry.

VCLA also helped me find a suitable tutor to improve my written English, because even though I can write poetry, I wanted to improve my English grammar. Kathie, VCLA’s tutor coordinator, introduced me to Lindsay Young. I was confident and impressed upon meeting her.

For eight months, Lindsay and I have worked together on grammar, writing exercises, verb tenses, comprehension and retention exercises. I have found all the work beneficial.

In the future, we intend to continue to work together on English. We meet once a week and I find it very helpful. I appreciate all the help I have been given and also hope to continue writing more books!

The only time that many of us reach for a poem these days is at a time of darkness or euphoria – death and love. But there are others for whom poetry is a daily, necessary food. Donald is one of these people. Donald’s sister sent VCLA an article about another:…/poetry-kept-my-pat…/…

If you would like a copy of Donald Dunn's most recent poetry, contact VCLA at [email protected]

Sandra Milne

February 15th, 2018 was a big day for Sandra Milne – She wrote her final GED test that day. Oh, and it was her 60th birthday too! “I did it only for me,” she said. “It was something I wanted.” Sandra’s daughter was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at 37, yet still set herself the goal to get an LPN diploma by 40. Sandra thought, “If she can do that, then I can set a goal for myself too. I want to get my GED by the time I am 60.”

Sandra has just returned from a trip out west, so she hasn’t had a lot of time to reflect on her recent accomplishment. She has good memories of the camaraderie in her VCLA classroom. “It was a small class and we were all there for each other, giving each other encouragement, saying good luck before anyone’s test, and then wanting to know how they did when they got their results. They were right there for you.”

Social Studies was the hardest GED subject for Sandra. “I hadn’t watched tv for years. I didn’t really know what was going on in the world so the political cartoons didn’t make sense to me – I didn’t know who those people were. And the geography and history – it had been so long since I’d read those things.” She found the way to deal with that, though. “I had to get in the mindset that what I was learning in the book wasn’t what was going to be on the test. The book is for practice. It is examples. For the test I was going to have to read something, understand and then say it back in a different way.”

Before beginning the GED program, “I was very anxious – I lacked confidence in myself,” Sandra says. “I’d like to see a lot more people do it, but I don’t know how you’ll get them in. People with young kids, distractions, other things going on in their lives – they might find it hard.” Sandra made the time to do her studies. “I applied myself. Even on storm days when I couldn’t get to school, I wouldn’t say “oh good, a day off”, I would sit and do school work - for up to 7 hours!”

The photograph shows Sandra with her teachers Joanne and Penny, after getting the news that she had passed her last test. She said this picture tells her story. “They were there to help. I had Joanne’s email and I could drop her a message. I could go to them with questions. When I wrote my stories, they would help me to improve what I was writing. They were very encouraging. More than helpful in any way.” And now she has her GED. “I was tired of writing Grade 6 whenever I had to fill out a form that asked about my education. Now I can say I have a high school education.”

Sandra is a proud grandmother to 7 and works seasonally; she said she is looking forward to her retirement.

Tracy Bezanson

April 17, 2018

If I had to describe VCLA and the programs I took with one word what would it be? Success!

I have been in 3 VCLA programs: Sales Tourism Essentials (2014), Beginners Crash Course (2015), and Cornerstone (2017) . There was always help if you needed it. Asking questions was encouraged. They used different learning styles so everybody could learn in a way that worked for them. There was always someone there to help with anything – school, life.... to help you walk thru difficulties or struggles, to help you succeed.... Everyone helped and encouraged me to follow my dreams and not give up. There was always the attitude that yeah, there are road blocks but don’t give up.

My favourite course was Cornerstone, because I’m all about helping people and wanted to enter the health care field. The Palliative Care course was my favourite class. It was really difficult, but I use what I learned in my work now. It helped me prepare to be with someone as they drew their last breath, which was pretty emotional.

My first time going to classes with VCLA, I was extremly nervous. I was not sure what to expect. I was a bit nervous about taking the Personal Care course too. I wasn’t sure that I could actually do that kind of work, but now, it’s easy, like second nature.

I have changed since taking these programs - So much! I’m not stuck in my box anymore. I’m not hidden. I feel more confident. I have a voice now. I am so proud of myself! My favourite quote is “Always follow your dreams!” and I did it. I kept a promise to my late-mom that I would go back to school and complete my program – that I would get the career I always wanted and not give up. I promised her. I made her proud and I did it to honour her.

I am now an RRW at the KRRC. I have the career that I want. I do personal care for clients, lite housekeeping and assist with their socialization and daily living activities. I’m almost at full wages. I love my job and I love my clients. I want everyone to know that regardless of disability we are all people – with all the same emotions and feelings and hopes and we all deserve respect.

There are 2 big changes in my life because of taking the training with VCLA and obtaining work. First, I have gained in confidence. I have a new respect for myself and from my husband because now I can contribute more to our marriage and to our household bills. Secondly, I have a financial freedom that I’ve never had before. I am able to self-support. I am no longer on assistance. I was able to buy Christmas gifts for my grandchildren and daughter in a way like I have never been able to before. It was so much fun!

Ashley Royal

April 11, 2018

I did Pathways to Success (2013) a few years ago. Then last year I did the Cornerstone Program (2017). I liked the learning environment. There was a good energy or atmosphere around the program… My favourite was the dementia class. It was hard but really related to me. It gave me insight into my current clients. I’m working with Careforce now, doing continuing care, working with the elderly.

If I’d not taken Cornerstone I would likely be on assistance still, looking for work in retail. Without this knowledge or training, I wouldn’t have had a chance to do what I’m doing now. I am proud of myself. When I started, was I nervous? Hell yeah! I’m always nervous about anything new! I appreciated how supportive you guys are; how understanding… Everything. You are a great organization. I honestly like this type of environment for school rather than others.

Anthony Whiston – winner of William and Lucille Owen Award, May 2018

Anthony Whiston is having his ‘time to shine’. After leaving school in order to take care of his terminally-ill father for a lengthy period, Anthony ventured back to begin working to get his GED. Although he seems shy and reserved, he is also wise for his years. His education was put on hold because of a self-less act of love and care; now he is reaching his learning goals and gaining momentum.

“I have been in VCLA’s LifeStreams and GED programs,” says Anthony. “LifeStreams was a good activity-rich program that also helps with life skills in a fun way. I found it fun participating with the group.The GED program was academic. I liked the science for my GED because its just interesting to me. My favourite LifeStreams activity was the first one with the candle, thinking outside of the box. I just finished my GED and completing LifeStreams has also helped in general life. I am slowly pushing ahead and between the two programs, I feel like I have catapulted from where I was last year. I thank those who helped make a lot of this possible. But I definitely feel like I can move further in my life with the knowledge I have gained and I certainly walked away with a few new friends as well.”

On May 5th, 2018, Anthony was awarded one of the three William and Lucille Owen Awards. These are given to VCLA learners who have demonstrated dedication and excellence in adult learning.

Anthony has an interest in computers and now wants to explore attending COGS to study Information Technology. When one of his teachers warned him that the program was known to be difficult, Anthony’s response was: “I want to try it. What is difficult for others may not be difficult for me.” We at VCLA are right behind Anthony as he prepares to apply at COGS.