November 2018

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In his delightful book “I can read with my eyes shut”, Dr. Seuss advises his young readers: “The more things you read, the more things you know, the more things you know, the more places you’ll go”, a metaphorical statement about the power of reading to fuel the imagination, expand the mind and broaden horizons, and a very literal recognition of the fundamental importance of reading. Most of us take for granted this completely unnatural and complex cognitive process, but there was no hyperbole involved when the late former UN Secretary-General Mr. Kofi Annan stated that “Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories”.

For Mrs. Paula Lucie-Smith, a national scholarship winner from St. Joseph’s Convent, Port-of-Spain, the fundamental impact of low-level literacy was revealed during her four years as a high school teacher. Armed with a Warwick University degree in History and a University of Leicester Certificate in Education, she was eager to see all her students succeed and enthusiastically sought to engage parents where necessary. To her surprise, some parents of struggling students appeared to have little or no interest in meeting with her. She eventually realised that many of them were non-readers, actively avoiding her for fear of discovery and because of their own negative experiences with school. They were among an estimated 24% of adults in Trinidad and Tobago who struggle with even basic reading … and without intervention, their children (and their children’s children) were on their way to joining them.

In 1990, Paula took action. Having left the teaching service to start a family, she enrolled in a short Ministry of Education / UNESCO training course for volunteer adult literacy teachers. Later that year, she and a fellow tutor faced the challenge of teaching their first class of about 20 people, with no teaching materials. With much creativity, more reading and help from experts in education, dyslexia and linguistics, they managed to come up with a structure. In 1992, she formed the Adult Literacy Tutors Association (ALTA) with the modest aims of bringing tutors together to share ideas and materials, and to direct students to teachers in their areas.

Anyone who knew Paula Lucie-Smith could bet that it would not stop there. With single-minded focus, endless energy, persistence, and mindful of her mother’s mantra that “the worst thing in the world is a selfish person”, Paula gave her all to ALTA. For 26 years, she has been the unrelenting, unstoppable and apparently un-sleeping driving force moving ALTA from two people operating out of her house to a highly respected, internationally recognised organisation that has now trained hundreds of tutors in Trinidad and Tobago, St. Vincent, Antigua and Grenada. ALTA offers the only comprehensive, structured, adult literacy programme in Trinidad and Tobago. There are free twice-weekly classes with embedded life skills at 50 venues, over 300 volunteers and over 1,500 students annually. In addition to community classes and reading circles, ALTA extended to school, workplace and prison literacy programmes.

As ALTA CEO, Mrs. Lucie-Smith, presided over and was a major contributor to the building of a comprehensive body of knowledge and the development of ALTA’s novel teaching materials. These include more than 60 published books, learning aids such as phonic and rule cards, games and graded reading books and the first local educational board games. ALTA keeps abreast (and often ahead) of the field through regular review of materials, tools and strategies as well as through Paula’s constant research into core strategies from elsewhere that can be adapted for Caribbean learners.

In addition to her selfless diligence, vision, persistence and intellectual input, Paula provided at least two other things that helped to make ALTA what it is today. The first is her refusal to waste resources. Her firm belief in recycle, reuse and reduce has seen ALTA through many a lean period. The second is that her unwillingness to give up extends to people. With infinite compassion and the patience of a saint, whether it is an ALTA staff member, a tutor or a student, Paula doesn’t give up on people – even when urged to do so for her own sanity. It is her nature to be drawn to those who are less than 100% and to direct her energy where it is most needed.

Paula’s and ALTA’s good work has not gone unnoticed. They have earned several national and international awards and other forms of recognition including the Hummingbird Gold Medal for service, and selection by UNESCO as a model for adaptation and replication worldwide. Never seeking accolades for herself, Paula is quick to credit the army of volunteer tutors, teacher trainers, coordinators, programme developers, administrators, the students and their families, individual and corporate sponsors, partners, supporters and the long list of mentors and experts she learned from. And there is also the unwavering support of her husband William, her three daughters, and Cathryn Kelshall of the Dyslexia Association.

Paula’s work as an adult literacy educator and activist has helped her to play a role in being a bulwark against poverty and a bridge from misery to hope for so many. She is the best thing in the world: an unselfish person.

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