A horseman Jeannie Spence once tutored was furious the first time he watched a movie after he'd learned to read.
"He was so mad because he thought the credits were part of the story, because all he saw were words," said Spence. "He thought everybody knew the story and that was one of the main reasons why he wanted to read."
Spence, who since the 1960s has tutored employees who live and work at Hastings Racecourse, received a 2011 Dr. Alan Middleton Workplace Literacy and Learning Award in Toronto last month from ABC Life Literacy Canada.
Tracy Defoe, a workplace literacy program instructor for Capilano University who nominated Spence, praised the volunteer for her passionate work in the years that preceded the 10-year-old Hastings Learning Centre, with which Cap U is a partner, and for her ongoing work there.
"She does, herself, tutor people and she also gets there in the barn and finds people who should be coming," Defoe said. "Everybody told me that years before there was a formal learning centre there, Jeannie was teaching people in barns."
She added: "This is a community that packs it up every winter and then comes back again in the springtime and so to have continuity of people and have the same people come back and pick up where they left off in their learning track is remarkable."
Spence involved herself with Hastings Racecourse, then called Exhibition Park, as a jockey in the mid-1960s when she was studying to be an elementary school teacher at the University of B.C.
One person who worked alongside her in the stables asked her for help with reading and writing. Another person asked, and before long, she was arriving at the track at 4: 30 or 5 a.m. to train horses, teaching reading to those in need during the half hour break at around 7 or 8 a.m. and helping out again on weekend mornings. She kept up this schedule for 20 years while teaching full-time and commuting from Langley.
"I love the horses. I love the people. They're like my second family," said Spence, who left her teaching job in the late 1980s but continued to volunteer at Hastings.
She teaches men and women who quit school at a young age or who were passed through grades at school even though they hadn't mastered reading and writing skills.
As a board member of the B.C. Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, Spence helped start the centre that offers literacy, Grade 12 equivalency, art, yoga and English as a second language programming at the racecourse.
Spence was surprised to receive the award and almost hung up when she received a phone call from a stranger offering his congratulations for winning.
She's thrilled to be recognized but said she can't take credit for tutors, students and others who make the learning centre productive.
She also acknowledged the courage involved for an adult to admit they can't read.
"Because they really think they must be really slow because here's little kids reading and they can't," Spence said. "It's the same as training a horse. You don't train every horse the same."
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