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From Volunteer to Staff: Get to Know Vanessa Wong, Toronto Regional Manager

Feb. 13 2023

A woman with brown hair and glasses smiling.

This is the first in a series of articles featuring staff members who started as a United for Literacy volunteer. We want to highlight the value of volunteering and staying in touch with United for Literacy as well as offer an inside look at what people enjoy about their work changing lives through literacy.

When Vanessa Wong became the Toronto Regional Manager in January 2022, she was already an important part of the organization as both a volunteer and a former summer literacy camp counsellor. We recently spoke to her about her rich and varied experiences in her different roles. Since Vanessa has been involved for several years, this interview refers to both United for Literacy and its former name, Frontier College. 

How did you first hear about Frontier College?

When I was a student at the University of Toronto at Scarborough and the group was known as Frontier College at University of Toronto at Scarborough. They were looking for volunteers for their tutoring and afterschool programs. 

Why did you decide to become a volunteer?

At the time it looked like a great opportunity to be more active in the community. I was also considering teaching for a career and thought this was a great opportunity to gain some experience. Through the experience, I learned that teaching was not a profession that was a very good fit for me. But I learned so much about community literacy programs and community work. This work had an impact in my various job transitions, and it’s work I am still involved in today in my current role as the Toronto Regional Manager at United for Literacy.

What were your roles as a volunteer? 

I had quite a few roles as a volunteer. I started out as a volunteer tutor with [what is now] United for Literacy at the University of Toronto at Scarborough at Family Residence, a shelter in Scarborough. The year after, I was a member of the Organizing Team and volunteered as a tutor with two programs at Dr. Roz’s Healing Place and Juliette’s Place.  A few years after, I was a volunteer with the Alumni Speaker Bureau, where I shared my experiences as a Camp Counsellor with the Lieutenant Governor’s Indigenous Summer Reading Camp and its impact in the communities we worked in with various community service groups, including Rotary Clubs in Toronto.

Where did you work as a Summer Literacy Camp Counsellor?

I was a Camp Counsellor in 2008 and 2009 at Pikangikum First Nation and Cat Lake First Nation.

Can you share a couple of highlights and challenges of your work as a camp counsellor?

So many highlights! The whole summers were a highlight. Yard sales, bingo nights over the radio, fry bread tacos, the northern lights, long nights of planning and trying to figure out what would be a good learning activity.... And feeling supported and welcomed by the community.

At Pikangikum First Nation, we had over 60 kids participate in the program because community members would pick them up and drop them off. In Cat Lake First Nation, one of the youth leaders invited us out for a day of canoeing and fishing. And the conversations.... Whether they would be impromptu conversations at the Northern Store or when youth in the community would visit after program to laugh, share a joke, and talk. Community members were generous with their time and with their stories. Sometimes, those conversations were difficult, and sometimes there were tears.

I guess this is where we talk about challenges. The conversations were challenging because they were about how colonialism, the residential school system, the Sixties Scoop, and inequitable government policies continue to traumatize individuals, families, and communities. The history classes I had when I was in school told the story of how Louie Riel was a "rebel" and how the French and British "settled" in Canada. My experiences with the Summer Literacy Camps were the start of a journey of unlearning, relearning, and reflecting on my responsibility as a settler and the ways I, as a child of immigrant parents who come from places with their own legacy of colonialism, can support and participate in the process of reconciliation.

Did working at camp prepare you for your current role?

Absolutely! Hard skills such as managing budgets and accounts and developing and delivering literacy programs. And soft skills, such as being able to work independently and in a team, how to work (and live) with people from very different experiences and histories from yours, to being able to adapt in challenging situations.

What interested you about your current role when you saw the job posting?

What attracted me the most was the opportunity to work at United for Literacy again. My previous experiences working with the organization had been very positive and have played an important role in my career and in my personal and professional interest in adult literacy and community-based learning programs. And the people who I have worked with before and the coworkers I still keep in touch now have been very generous with their time and with sharing their skills, experiences, and knowledge. I wanted to work in that environment again. I wanted to have the opportunity to support United for Literacy in the same way my previous coworkers have supported me, and I hope to contribute to the organization and its mission in a meaningful way.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in literacy or with United for Literacy?

I don't have any advice. But I do have two statements, or conversations, that have stood out for me. The first was shared by an Executive Director I worked with at a City of Toronto Community Centre. I can't really remember the exact statement, but it was something along the line of you don't have to be an expert but a strong generalist. She was able to be an effective ED because she had knowledge and experience around programs, policies, grant writing, etc., but she could also pick up a hammer to fix something, had some IT skills to fix a computer issue, and knew a little about the Leafs to talk about them. The second was shared by a United for Literacy staff person a few months after I started here. Things are constantly changing and being comfortable with change and ambiguity and being able to adapt and pivot is important. I think a lot about that, especially with the changes that have happened at United for Literacy the past few years and how the organization responded to the impacts of COVID, with the name change, and with staff changes.

What do you enjoy most about your job? What I enjoy most about my job is the opportunity to connect, learn from, and work alongside other staff at United for Literacy. If I need some direction or would like to talk to someone about something data collection strategies, recruitment best practices, etc., there is more than likely another staff person who has been through a similar experience and will share and talk about it. And this job is also an opportunity to connect my personal interests in community-based literacy programs in my professional life.

Do you have a specific story you'd like to share about a success or good moment at Frontier College/United for Literacy? 

That is a difficult question to answer. There were and still are so many success stories and good moments at United for Literacy. Whether it is a learner from the BTS program being recognized for their achievements through the Learner Achievement Award or a learner with the Independent Studies program being recognized for their contribution to the program through the Gerrard Tardiff Award, or a volunteer with the Scarborough Literacy and Basic Skills program being recognized for their work with the Joyce Matthews Award. I would even include coworkers organizing the holiday lunch at the Toronto office, a staff person saying hello and offering you a treat if you are in the office, or when another staff person notices something interesting about your work background during a zoom meeting and asks you about it. Those are good moments as well.

Can you tell me about a particular person or activity from United for Literacy who/that had an impact on you? 

One activity that I have frequently used as an opening activity when working with a new group of people is the Community Quilt activity. It is an activity that was shared with us during training during my first summer with the Lieutenant Governor’s Summer Literacy Camps. Everyone has a piece of paper, and you can draw and/or write words about yourself, your interests, talents. At the end of the activity, folks can share what they created and share a bit about themselves as well.  And all the pieces are put together in a quilt. It is a great icebreaker activity and there are so many ways the activity can be adapted to who you are working with.

And as for people, there are two: One was a former supervisor, and another was a coworker. I have had the privilege of knowing both of them for nearly 15 years and both are incredibly supportive in my professional and personal life. Regardless of how long it has been since we last saw each other, it feels like no time has passed when we do.

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