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A Steadfast Presence in a Rapidly Changing World: Sandi Kiverago

Mar. 26 2024

In 1988, Sandi Kiverago was hired by Frontier College (now United for Literacy) as Resource Coordinator. Today, as we wish her a very happy retirement, she is Vice President, Operations and has even served as acting President twice. In her 35 years at United for Literacy, Sandi has been invaluable. Her leadership, positive influence, and decisiveness, along with a strong understanding of the importance of literacy and the work we do, has helped to build and guide the organization. Perhaps just as importantly, Sandi has been a pleasure to work with. Her intelligence, enthusiasm, and sense of humour made the office (before we all worked from home) something to look forward to. We’re glad she’ll have more time to spend with friends and family doing all the things she loves, but we’re going to miss her and look forward to her returning as a volunteer!

As you’ll read, more than just the name of the organization has changed since Sandi was hired. Please enjoy this Q&A with Sandi Kiverago.

Three women smiling

  1. What was your first role at Frontier College, now United for Literacy?

I was hired as the Resource Coordinator. The Director of Communications at the time, Jenny Marcus, hired me and today is one of my dearest friends. I was looking for a job so I could stop freelancing, and a friend of mine’s mother was the Director of Finance at the time. 

And I don't even know if anyone else applied, but I got the interview. Jenny's interviewing me with her feet up on her desk… her boots on. And I'm on the other side of the table, and I'm like, yeah, I can work here. This seems kind of cool. She hired me, and my very first day, I called in sick. That is very, very bad career move. [Sandi smiles at the memory.]

So, we had a library in the backroom on the first floor, which is now empty. It had all those original antique wooden shelves that you see around the building. 

That whole room was lined in those shelves, which were filled with literacy resource books. At that time, there was no Internet, so people would come and borrow material: literacy, and instructional-type, materials. It wasn't for learners. It was more for volunteers and teachers. I would lend out the materials and I also ran the photocopier, the mail machine, and the fax machine.

There were tons of mail in those days. I would have multiple stacks of envelopes to run through the mail machine. It would take me half a day just to put the stamps on them. 

  1. Have you had other roles throughout your career?

I remember working as the Resource Coordinator for a few months, but it quickly morphed into me doing more communications things. It was a team of three, including me, Jenny, and Eugene Stickland.

And the thing that I remember the most about that time is that Eugene was writing, and the age of the computer was starting right then. Some people had, I think it was called a Fillbitron, which was a monitor on their desk. It was one of those monitors that if you looked at it sideways, was bigger than I can show with my hands, you know. It had the black screen and the bright green pixels. It was connected to a mainframe. They were all connected by wires and all you could do was data entry, like it was a database.
But now, it was the time when people were starting to do more things with computers beyond just entering data into an old-style monitor. And because Eugene was writing stuff we thought, hey, we should start publishing. That’s when my job morphed into desktop publishing. Jenny and Eugene were certainly the creative energy behind this endeavour that we named Frontier College Press. I was happy to tag along as their assistant. I learned so much!

I had a Mac computer, which I think was the only computer in the organization. We didn't have Internet or anything like that, but what I was doing was typesetting the stuff that Eugene was writing. Then we were sending it out to get it printed into little booklets. 

And then the Internet happened, and the resource library got used less and I was getting more involved in the communication side of things and beyond., including event planning and fundraising. I started to help Jenny with the PGI (Peter Gzowski Invitational), which was a big deal at the time. It would sell out quickly. 

Sales were all done by mail, by the way. My job was to create the registration form and the invitation letter. Peter Gzowski would come into the office and sign all these letters, each one. In some cases, they were somebody he knew, so he crossed out the “Dear John” and wrote John. Then I would put them all together and get them in the mail. And once people started getting them, I would start getting phone calls and spend two days on the phone just answering people. It would sell out in two days, and we’d make a quarter of a million dollars. This was back in the day and a quarter of a million dollars was a lot of money. 

The idea of doing a bonspiel to raise funds came out of the golf tournament. We thought, well, we do something in the summer, what can we do in the winter? The bonspiel is what we came up with. 

At this time, we were still small, and the executive team was the President, the Director of Communications, Director of Finance, and the Program Director. John O’Leary was the president. When Jenny decided to move out West, I got the job as Director of Communications. I don't remember if John even posted that job. 

Years later, when the internet was starting to grow, I got involved in Information Technology. So, I took on IT along with communications. There were a few turnovers in staff when Sherry Campbell was President, which resulted in me also taking on Human Resources because I like to work with people and support what they do. When I took that on, I gave up the communications piece.

  1. How has the organization changed since you started?

I was happy when I first became Director of Communications but also in way over my head because we were doing some crazy things. We had partnerships with McDonald's and had Frontier College on the tray liners with tips about reading to children. They only did toys back then, but we had a branded children's book that went into the Happy Meal. 

And we also had a partnership with MuchMusic. It was a pretty big deal. John was working with Daniel Richler, son of Mordecai Richler. He was a veejay on MuchMusic at the time. Daniel and John started this promotion called Rock'n'Roll and Reading. All these singer/songwriters got involved and talked about how the lyrics to a song they wrote were inspired by a book. The idea, of course, was to appeal to young people through something they cared about—music. And to show them that music and books are connected. I hope more young people picked up one of those books inspired by the music they loved.

Another big difference was that our first website was a sub-page of the Molson website. We had a partnership with Molson and didn’t have the resources or connections to build our own website.

In terms of the work, I don't see that the work has changed so much. We called ourselves national back then, but the reality is that we had a robust program in Regina and in Winnipeg, and we had a staff person on the East Coast, but really all the work was happening in Toronto. It was a Toronto-based organization.

For me, by far the biggest difference today is the scope. Historically, we were always doing work in other parts of Canada. In the '80s and '90s, the Labourer-Teacher program was mostly based in Southwestern Ontario and focused on farming and agriculture. I think that I joined at a time when there was less presence across the country than before—and certainly after.

  1. How did the United for Literacy Bookstore come into being?

My MO through my whole career at Frontier College/United for Literacy was, whenever anybody said, “What are we going to do with this?” I’d say, “I'll do it.” And I built my job around that approach and philosophy. I said yes to things that were outside my comfort zone and often my abilities. But, wow, did I learn a lot by doing so!

The Bookstore is a great example of that. That business had nothing to do with my job. Laubach Literacy on the East Coast was shutting their doors.  They were funded by the feds to do a train-the-trainer program and to distribute literacy resources across the country. And the feds said, “You have to legacy gift these resources.” And so, they asked for proposals from organizations who wanted to take the stuff on. We asked for it and we got it. So, when Sherry said, “Well, now we're going to run a store” I said, “I’m in!”

So, I flew out east with Joanna, who was doing a program job, and we seconded her because she had a publishing background. We met with the staff and saw the inventory and the whole operation. And we arranged to get it packed up and shipped up to Toronto. In the meantime, we had to renovate the basement at 35 Jackes Avenue to accommodate the materials and all the shelving. So now not only was I going to oversee a business, a social enterprise for Frontier College, but I was going to plan the build out of the physical space as well!

I didn't have a sledgehammer or anything, but I was hiring the contractors and figuring out the configuration of the rooms and where the shelving needed to go. All the shelving arrived in one shipment, and we were all building the shelving and putting it in place. And then another week, all the resources arrived, and we all unpacked and shelved and catalogued. It was a real group effort, everyone got involved.

That was one of the funniest things I ever did, though, because it was so outside my zone. I'd never run a business. I didn't know anything about making a profit, so I was learning from scratch and trial and error. We don't call ourselves a learning organization for nothing. 

  1. What are you most proud of in your career?

I'm proud of us having the Imagine Canada Standards accreditation. When I heard about this program that Imagine Canada was launching to accredit Canadian charities and non-profits, I knew I wanted to be involved. 

I first joined their marketing and communications committee. Our role was to get the word out to the sector. They finally launched the program around 2011. Frontier College was accredited in the first round and the Frontier College Foundation was also alongside. It was a great experience. That’s really when I started becoming interested in the broader sector outside of Frontier College.

I'm so proud that we have been re-accredited every year since then. As a volunteer peer reviewer and coach, I also look at other organization’s applications to help them on their accreditation journey. I like taking part at that level and seeing what other organizations in Canada are doing and the kinds of ideas that they have around governance, fundraising, and human resource management. All of that has so enriched my knowledge. So much of what I've learned I've been able to bring back to our organization.

  1. What do you think the organization’s greatest challenge will be in the next decade?

The first thing that comes to mind is Artificial Intelligence. I know some of the benefits and I know some of the risks, but I think it's going to change the landscape for almost everything. So, I think the challenge is, how it changes the the landscape for United for Literacy. How will tutoring and learning change? Will access to literacy services expand exponentially?

I also think attention has to be paid to controlled growth, because there's so much need and so much potential. But smart growth requires a solid foundation of shared services like finance, fund development, communications, HR, IT, etc. I'm always mindful of that as an operations person. I understand that we want to partner with governments and others to increase our presence and our reach. But I'm always the one at the table reminding people that we need to bolster the foundation so that we can do our best literacy work.

  1. What would you like to see United for Literacy achieve in the next 10-20 years?
You know, it's the romantic thing to say that we don't exist anymore, but I don't believe that that's going to happen in the foreseeable future. So, in spite of our growth and our added efforts on the literacy file, [literacy levels] actually fell. 
I don't know what it's going to take, but what I believe for the future—and I think our current President, Melanie Valcin is on the right track—is there’s no way our organization is going to make a dent in the statistics alone. And so, I think that partnering with others, including national and regional governments, to make a difference is the only way we're going to make meaningful, collective change. 
So,what I hope for the future is that United for Literacy is working in tandem, in lockstep, with the government and with other literacy partners to make a difference. 

*Answers have been edited for clarity and space.
- Interview by Joanne Huffa
A woman with short hair and a woman with shoulder length hair in a room with a window
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