This "fairy grandmother" to use her magic for literacy

Retired social worker who moonlights as a volunteer "fairy grandmother" for stressed out Tri-City moms now local literacy czar

For more than a year, Sue Whittemore has been dispensing support, helpful advice and knowledge — along with fairy dust — as a volunteer "fairy grandmother" with the Tri-Cities Moms Group on Facebook.

Now, she’s applying her starry wand to literacy as the newly installed community literacy outreach co-ordinator for the Tri-Cities, hoping to bring the magic of reading to families in Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Port Moody, Anmore and Belcarra.

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When she’s not reading to children, doing crafts, handing out free books, encouraging the development of Little Free Libraries and promoting ESL with newcomers, Whittemore is working with a committee of school administrators, library professionals and early childhood educators to provide literacy opportunities for the community.

The job is a dream come true for the retired social worker, who grew up with a love of books and who instilled the joy of reading in her own children even though sometimes they were resistant, Whittemore said.

“I love the whole idea of books and children,” said Whittemore, who said she first got a library card when she was in Grade 2.

Passionate about how a love of reading at an early age can help people in later life, Whittemore said an early start is good — even babies can enjoy chewing on a good book.

“Children learn that reading is done in the context of a close physical relationship,” Whittemore said, an idea she promotes whether helping a new mom with laundry as a volunteer fairy grandmother or handing out books to families with children when she travels on a B.C. ferry.

But literacy is more than the love of reading and Whittemore, who said she has “seen it all” as a social worker over 36 years, believes people need to be able to function in all aspects of communication, whether written, verbal, numerical or analytical, to be able to achieve their goals.

That’s why as literacy co-ordinator, she will be planning a number of events, including continuing the Play and Learn events for families at Coquitlam Centre, which will begin again in January, or coming up with new topics for monthly events for newcomers.

She will also continue at her post as the Tri-Cities’ own fairy grandmother, a volunteer job she created for herself after joining the Tri-Cities Moms Facebook group.

Although her children are grown, Whittemore, who lives in Coquitlam, was pleased to be allowed to join the closed group, and when she saw the topics of concern raised by moms, many of them stressed out by juggling family, new babies, work and elderly parents, she realized that help was needed.

“I am the friendly face at the door,” said Whittemore, who shows up, wand in hand, books in her bag and ready to help out with requests, from helping with laundry to doing dishes or changing a baby's diaper.

Not exactly a Mary Poppins figure who expects everything to be “spit spot,” Whittemore is more like the non-judgemental friend who gives you a helping hand when you’re down and maybe some some gentle advice if you ask for it.

“They always apologize for the state of their homes,” Whittemore said with a laugh.

Sometimes, the women are simply overwhelmed. Whittemore remembers one time she helped clean out a shed so a woman’s elderly father who had Alzheimer’s could find his tools; another time she brought sandwiches, vitamins and yogurt to a breastfeeding mom suffering strep throat.

“Then you sit down, have a cup of tea and you talk,” Whittemore says.

In the last 18 months, Whittemore has has logged about 400 hours in 80 visits to Tri-City homes and a few more grandmothers will soon be joining the fairy grandmother team.

For Whittemore, it’s all about helping the community be stronger, something she has always done as a helping professional. Now, she hopes to apply the same optimistic spirit and magic dust to literacy.

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