A decade ago she left India for Nelson, her husband’s hometown. She worked as an esthetician, but hoped to broaden her career options, and perhaps become a nurse.
She enrolled in an adult biology class at Selkirk College. However, English wasn’t her first language. Instructors spoke too quickly for her, and used scientific terms she didn’t know.
She also had a young child, making it difficult to get to class without daycare. While she took advantage of a home study option, her progress was slow: “I thought ‘It’s not going to happen for ten years.’“
Meanwhile, Bhabra was taking her son to family literacy programs like Mother Goose and Love 2 Learn, because she wanted to read to him in English.
Both fell under the umbrella of the Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy, a non-profit organization that also offers adult tutoring.
Joan Exley, Nelson’s community literacy coordinator, says learners are paired with tutors based on goals: “It’s not curriculum based. It’s based on what that person needs.”
The goal can be short or long term — anything from weeks to years.
“Somebody might come in and say I need to write my driver’s test in three weeks,” Exley says. “It’s very specific and time-oriented. That’s the goal and when the goal is done, they may be done.”
By contrast, someone trying to improve their English might come for a long time. People also step in and out out of the program, based on work and family demands.
Exley says they always try to have more volunteer tutors than needed so no learner is left waiting. “When we’ve got a full slate we’ve probably got 14 or 15 working and five or ten in the pocket,” she says.
Within that roster is a range of skills, so “if a learner needs help with English or math or doing a driver’s test, hopefully we’ll have someone who can lend their expertise.”
In Bhabra’s case, she worked with a couple of tutors to improve her English, then tried again to conquer biology.
Enter Sylvia Reimer, who had a science background and responded to a newspaper ad seeking new tutors. The two women were matched up and hit it off.
“She was very motivated and I really wanted to help her get through this course,” Reimer says. “It takes a few lessons to learn each other’s style and see what works, but it’s been very rewarding.”
Although she had never been a tutor — “I was an aerobics instructor, but that’s about the extent of my teaching” — Reimer loved the subject, and Bhabra was equally fascinated.
They met at Bhabra’s home once or twice a week, in sessions lasting two to four hours. The one-on-one solved the childcare problem, while the regular visits provided extra incentive.
“There was a good routine going,” Bhabra says. “Otherwise I can’t keep it up.”
By the time she finally wrote her biology exam, it had been over three years since she started.
Reimer was allowed to be present to explain some of the questions. Bhabra scored 96 per cent. “We were both thrilled,” Reimer says. “She’d been trying for so long. It was a big accomplishment for her.”
“It ended up really great,” Bhabra adds. “It was so good, so comforting … You give up and then suddenly something comes up and you can do it.”
The pair are now completing a nutrition unit, as Bhabra rounds out her science program. She also continues to attend family literacy programs — her eldest child is now in Grade 2 and her youngest is three.