Years ago, Jeannie Spence put herself through university as a barrel racer and jockey on the B-circuit track in the British Columbia interior — once even breaking her neck and collarbone after a spill on the track. She went on to become a primary school teacher and thoroughbred trainer.
But Spence has also devoted her days to a different type of teaching at the racetrack — helping jockeys and other behind-the-scenes workers on the backstretch learn to read.
Her dedication was recognized recently by ABC Life Literacy Canada with the 2012 Dr. Alan Middleton Workplace Literacy and Learning award, presented to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution towards increasing workplace literacy and essential skills in the community.
“Not a lot of people across the country are doing these programs so the award is really an incentive and a recognition of those who are champions of this,” said Margaret Eaton, president of ABC Life Literacy. “It’s about improving people’s quality of life through their literacy and essential skills.”
The racetrack has a really interesting mix of people among its 1,500 to 1,700 employees and many have issues around language, whether that’s literacy or English as a second language, she said.
“(Spence) has really been the champion for this,” said Eaton. “This is somebody who brings such a passion for the learning and the people that are there.”
As a single parent with two children, Spence found the people on the backstretch became her family, she said. Her involvement in literacy began when she realized how many people in the backstretch — which includes trainers, grooms, walkers, kitchen staff and maintenance people — did not know how to read.
“You don’t really need education as long as you’re good with animals. So, of course then, they would gravitate to the racetrack and also, too, people don’t judge you there. You can be working next to a doctor or a lawyer and when you’re at the track, you’re just a person on the backstretch. As long as you’re doing your job, you’re recognized as that,” she said.
Spence began teaching people one-on-one how to read about 20 years ago when the Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association (HBPA) set up a learning centre at the Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver.
The two-room centre is a joint effort with Capilano University in North Vancouver that includes tutors and a government grant of $31,000.
But people weren’t lining up at the door. It’s a matter of gaining people’s trust, said Spence, who is also a board member of HBPA, so the centre provides coffee and tea and computers to make workers feel comfortable. Gradually, they start to warm up to the idea of seeking help.
For example, there was a jockey named Delbert who grew up in rural Canada but ended up leaving school in Grade 4, largely because he was told to write with his right hand, even though he was left-handed, and he was chastised, said Spence.
Delbert gravitated to the racetrack and ended up being a very successful jockey but when she encouraged him to learn how to read, he was very reluctant, she said.
“He told me that he’d rather be in a four-horse pileup than ever read anything.”
But within three months, he was reading everything. “I’ve never had anybody out there that I couldn’t teach how to read,” she said. “I find that they are so smart because they have figured out ways to survive without reading, which is absolutely amazing.”
It took Spence a long time to win over another worker who wanted to keep the tutoring a secret.
“He was hoping people didn’t know and he also was one of these macho men,” said Spence.
“I find with people with illiteracy, they would rather admit anything than that they’re illiterate. They would rather say they’re alcoholic or a drug addict or anything because it’s almost they think they are so slow — little children can read and yet they can’t.”
To accommodate, Spence taught the man away from the track, in a car or at his home, and after he learned to read, he went on to trade school.
There are about 100 learners that go through the track’s learning centre each season, said Eaton, learning literacy, numeracy or English as a second language, as many of the track’s jockeys come from Mexico.
“I get the thrill of watching them and how it changes their lives,” said Spence. “We have to realize how many people in Canada cannot read. And if you can’t read... it would be like going to a different country and trying to get a job.”
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