His life story sounds like a Hollywood movie. Despite reading at a Grade 2 level as a teenager, Lesra Martin – thanks to a bit of luck and a lot of hard work – became an honours student, graduated from law school and played a major role in overturning the wrongful murder conviction of middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
HIS REMARKABLE JOURNEY HAS, IN FACT, BEEN PORTRAYED ON SCREEN, BOTH IN THE AWARD-WINNING MOVIE THE HURRICANE AND A NATIONAL FILM BOARD DOCUMENTARY.
Mr. Martin grew up in a ghetto in Brooklyn, one of eight children in a family that struggled to get by. After meeting a group of Canadians who were visiting the lab where he had a summer job, Mr. Martin made the difficult decision to take them up on their offer to move to Toronto and start a new life.
“When I came to Canada at 15 I did a reading test and was devastated to learn how far behind I was,” he says. “But I was lucky. The people I was living with set me up with a tutor who worked with me every day. It was tough, but I enjoyed the fact that for the first time in my life my brain was really working.”
Mr. Martin happened upon Carter’s autobiography at a used book sale. He was so inspired by the story that he began writing to the jailed boxer. “My tutor helped me write my first letter, and that more than anything showed me the power of the written word. Rubin read my letter and responded – setting in motion a whole series of events that changed his life and mine.”
As an ambassador for ABC Life Literacy Canada, Mr. Martin is passionate about “paying it forward” and extending a hand to others in the same way that he was helped. “There are resources out there and some great programs if you can just take the first step.”
One organization that offers programs for adult learners is The Literacy Group, a community-based organization in Kitchener, Ontario. Executive director Carol Risidore works with adult learners to help them develop the literacy and other essential skills they need to get an entry-level job, gain access to services, move on to further training and education, and participate more fully in the life of their community.
“Many people have a hard time believing the numbers,” she says. “They’ll question whether we actually have such widespread literacy issues in Canada. But we do. About one-quarter of our population struggles with the most basic level of reading and writing.”
The Literacy Group offers free one-on-one tutoring and small group sessions to help individuals develop their strengths in reading, writing and math, along with essential skills like oral communication, working with others and computer use.
“When people realize that they can learn, the growth in self-confidence is astounding. It opens up a whole new world of opportunity.”
Carol Risidore, Executive Director,
The Literacy Group
“As a country, we have a tremendous opportunity to build the skills of people with low levels of literacy. The payoff is there: we know there is a skilled labour shortage, and when we invest in those who are struggling, we give them the foundation they need to get their first jobs and embark on a path of lifelong learning.”
Ms. Risidore says that with 300 students, her organization sees a success story every day – whether it’s someone who now has the skills to get an entry-level job, read a book to their child or even volunteer with the non-profit agency to help others. “When people realize that they can learn – that they’re not stupid or slow as they’ve often been told for years – the growth in self-confidence is astounding. It opens up a whole new world of opportunity.”
Mr. Martin agrees that the dividends of investing in literacy training are priceless for both the individual and the community.
“I know first-hand that it is a difficult process, but the rewards are worth it,” he says. “There’s lots of work to be done to improve literacy and essential skills, but no problem is too large if we join forces to tackle it together.”
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