Forty years is a long time to be away from a classroom. For Splatsin Nation spiritual helper and elder Edna Felix it proved to be the opportunity to change her life’s course.
After her husband passed away, Felix found herself struggling to balance working odd jobs with the responsibilities of caring for her four children and two foster children (who are also her grandsons). Finding it difficult to secure work with only a Grade 8 education, Felix turned to social assistance. She credits a social worker who mentioned the Stepping Forward program offered at Okanagan College’s Salmon Arm campus for broadening her horizon and leading her to gainful employment.
“I was nervous heading into the program but through learning I understood that my life experience in and of itself had been an education,” says Felix. “The program teaches essential skills for the work place, and also valuable life skills, including goal setting. I realized I already had many of these skills, but simply needed to hone them.”
Within the classroom, Felix took a role in mentoring the younger students, her peers. For an essay assignment she wrote about the history of the Shuswap people, her husband, and the land, culture and her family tree.
The 21-week Stepping Forward program, offered through the Continuing Studies department at the college, provides pre-employment skills and essential skills training, as well as adult basic education upgrading. It incorporates traditional First Nations heritage teachings and culture through aboriginal work history, medicine wheel, and drumming workshops.
According to Felix, the qualifications and certifications (including FoodSafe, First Aid, and Camp Cook) she received during the program were crucial to her finding employment. She is currently employed as a dishwasher and prep cook at the Wicked Spoon in Salmon Arm.
Felix has set a long-term goal of opening and managing an elders’ home. She has already applied to Okanagan College’s Health Care Assistant program and is building her work experience to encompass all aspects of owning a care facility, including as a cook and janitor.
“If I am to be a supervisor, I need to know what needs to be done and how to do it so that I can say I understand the roles of the job.”
The Stepping Forward program offered at Okanagan College was developed in co-ordination with First Nation partners to provide a well-rounded education program for aboriginal learners experiencing barriers to employment, including lack of high school graduation, work and life skills training.
Felix’s class included 24 students from a combination of the Neskonlith Band, Adams Lake Band, Little Shuswap Lake Band, and Splatsin Nation. All 24 graduated in March. Funding for the program has been provided through the Canada-British Columbia Job Fund Agreement. The Ministry of Advanced Education supported the program with funds from the Aboriginal Community Based Delivery Partnership Program. Participating students pay no fees.
“This program truly is transformative and benefits such a diverse array of students,” says Caroline Chartier, aboriginal transition planner at Okanagan College’s Salmon Arm campus. “Some have been through residential schools, some not, some are mature students, others still in their late teens.
Chartier says that while some students initially arrive apprehensive about the idea of school and education, the program creates a safe place to learn, and affords them the opportunity to experience and belong to the college community. In some cases, it has inspired the students to consider higher education beyond the program.
“We are very proud of these students. Some are gainfully employed, others are pursuing further education, and a handful are in the process of job interviews. They are now better equipped to be able to support themselves and earn steady income,” says Chartier.