Making a Big Impact in a Small Community



Charmead Schella grew up in the shadow of her father – literally. John Schella was a big, gritty defenseman who played professional hockey for the Vancouver Canucks during the 1970s. As a professional athlete, he was admired and liked by the people in his community…something his daughter is now experiencing by making an impact on her own community through work in literacy.

Charmead is a shining star, and like her father, is loved and admired by her community. Though she isn’t scoring goals and winning sports games, she’s changing the lives of people…and it’s every bit as impressive as her dad was on the ice.

As daddy’s little girl, Schella was one of those people who admired her father, but ironically it was the one small thing he did wrong that shaped her passion for literacy. “My dad forgot the cardinal rule of English grammar when spelling my legal name: ‘q’s are always followed by a ‘u’. My name is Jacqolin, and I have to spell it for people all of the time because they assume there’s a ‘u.’ This experience has driven my passion for proper grammar and for literacy in general.”

Charmead spent a good portion of her 20s overseas. Her passion for literacy and helping others made her a natural teacher and she flourished at her job teaching ESL. She also put her literacy skills to work as a journalist in a couple of different countries, including Russia! “My experience overseas really helped shape me and my consciousness, and it positioned me well for the climate and human versatility of my community,”  she explains.

She and her husband Chris landed in Port Alberni with the dream of building a hiking and adventure business. While that dream was being built, Charmead had to pay the bills. She turned to her passion – literacy – which after a couple of stops, eventually brought her to the Literacy Alberni Society, where she is now the Executive Director.

Charmead is also the local Literacy Outreach Coordinator for Port Alberni, where she is responsible for overseeing literacy priorities in her community. To say that she cares about literacy, and changing the lives of people in her community, would be an understatement: it only takes one short visit to the Literacy Alberni Society to figure that out.

When you walk into the Society for the first time, you’re greeted with a smile as wide as the Island itself…usually followed by a hug. The Society is located in the heart of Port Alberni, and is a bright light in a small industrial community that is facing several social and economic challenges. In fact, the small Island community was recently named the worst city to live in Canada in MoneySense’s latest annual ranking…although it’s not recommended to bring that up on your next visit.

Known in the 1980s for its pulp and paper prominence, the town flourished, and people made a good living. Times were good. “Back then, you didn’t need a good education or exceptional literacy skills to get by – the mill employed people and industry trumped education,” she explains. Today, the mill is not the employer it used to be, and the community is much different.

While Charmead, and the rest of the community, will be the first to tell you that the “worst city” ranking is a bunch of nonsense, she’s very candid about the challenges that her community faces. “We suffer from low literacy, which leads to a myriad of other problems,” she says. “There is a high rate of teenage pregnancy, there is unemployment, there is crime, there is family instability…and the list goes on.”

While the ‘low literacy’ story is not uncommon in some small industry-based communities across British Columbia, what is uncommon is to have someone that brings the level of empathy, dedication, passion, and professionalism that Charmead brings to literacy in her community.

She has helped numerous people improve their literacy and learning skills and has changed the lives of several individuals. Her stories about the people who come through the Society are inspiring and heartfelt: young adults who have gained employment skills; newly-arrived immigrants who have gained valuable literacy skills; seniors who now connect with the world using social media, and many more.

Schella will be the first to tell you that she is not alone and that she works with some ‘giants’ in the community. “The staff and Board members are amazing and they care as much as I do about the people of Port Alberni. We have amazing community partnerships and great support from our local politicians.”

Spending only one day in “P-dot” – as some of the locals call it – will make anyone agree more with her assessment. And there is no doubt that Schella and her team are making an impact on the community: numerous people have obtained their diplomas, found employment, obtained citizenship, and become more productive members of the community, because of their good work.

Asked where she draws the strength to continue making this type of impact, her answer is simple – her family. Her husband and two children are very supportive of her and her work, and they are active participants in literacy.

But she also told me that she draws inspiration from the people she helps. Schella recalls one story in particular of the little niece of a young learner who brought in $120 donation from her birthday to support literacy because of the recent government cuts to funding. “When things are tough, I think of that little girl’s gesture and I pick right up.”

When asked about the power of literacy, Schella smiles and said “it’s a cliché, but it’s true…literacy gives people hope and empowers them to make changes.” When asked about the people, Charmead’s philosophy is simple.  “Show people what their valuable assets are, so they can go ahead and achieve their literacy goals.”

It’s easy to see why so many people succeed after coming to the Literacy Alberni Society.

Read More Decoder Stories