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Former students say St. John's-based Rabbittown Learners Program changes lives

Almohannad Allou (right) and his family — wife Esraa (left) and daughter Maab, 4, are from Syria. The couple also have a son, Ahmab, 7. They are one of the countless success stories of people who have completed the Rabbittown Learners Program Inc. during its 30-year history.
Almohannad Allou (right) and his family — wife Esraa (left) and daughter Maab, 4, are from Syria. The couple also has a son, Ahmab, 7. They are one of the countless success stories of people who have completed the Rabbittown Learners Program Inc. during its 30-year history. - Joe Gibbons

For 30 years, the Rabbittown Learners Program has helped people make their lives better.

Through its relaxed and supportive learning environment, students of the program can work at their own pace to achieve a higher level of education that will help them increase their chances for employment or to carry on to higher education.

The program’s philosophy is that with respect, encouragement, understanding and patience, anything is possible. It’s a basic literacy/adult basic education Level 1 program for people wanting to advance to the Grade 6 level. It’s available to local residents and new Canadians, who are required to pass the Level 5 Canadian language benchmark in order to be enrolled in the program.

Almohannad Allou and his wife, Esraa, parents to two children, daughter Maab, 4, and seven-year-old son Ahmab, left their home in Daraa, Syria, in 2013 and headed to Jordan seeking refuge from the perils of war.

They spent nearly three years there before they got a call from the United Nations in late 2015 saying they had been chosen to go to Canada if they wished. After a month of paperwork and medical tests, they arrived in St. John’s on Jan. 1, 2016.

“It was tough at first — the weather, language — but we met a lot of good people, nice people, who were friendly to us here,” Allou said.

“The Association here has been so good to us. Everything was great here. The first time we came here, the people were so nice and friendly, even giving us gifts, things like a sofa, microwave and other things for our home.”

While they were getting settled, they worked with people in the Rabbittown Learners Program to learn English and other skills they would need to enhance their lives in Canada.

Allou worked as a mason in Syria, a trade he took with him to Jordan. He was always busy because of the brick and mortar composition of the buildings there.

“There are not a lot of buildings like that here,” he said. “Everything is wood, so that wouldn’t be a good job.

“If you have a diploma, you have many choices. I may be a mechanic or architect or may go to nursing, I am not sure right now.”

He spent three months in the Rabbittown program, finishing the Level 1 designation before moving to Academy Canada in May 2017 for the next phase of his studies.
Allou is working diligently to achieve his high school equivalency and has his eyes firmly set on a bright future for himself and his family.

Another student who understands the importance of the Rabbittown Learners Program is Stephen Withers, 29, who now lives in Mount Pearl.

“This place is like a family and that has helped me so much,” Withers said Wednesday during the program’s 30th anniversary celebrations at its Merrymeeting Road location in St. John’s.

He completed the Rabbittown Learners Program last year and is furthering his education at Academy Canada.

“A couple of times I almost dropped out and they would talk to me and convince me to come back. Things happen in life, so I would walk away for awhile. I had to go to work to provide for myself, but I wasn’t happy with that decision because I knew getting educated was important,” he said.

In addition to reading, students in the program study communication, math, science, social studies, government, workplace, computers and consumer education.

Withers credits Doris Barrington, current chair of the board of directors, with being a sounding board for him during his many attempts to stick with and finish the program.

“They have done a whole lot for me here. I have gotten dinners, like around Christmas. There are people I can talk to when I have a problem.

“They care about you and want you to do well. They care about any problems you may have in your life.”

Withers, like most young people, is great with computers, and that was his outlet during his teenage years. But the educational component that goes with being computer literate, in particular reading, was missing for him.

“My goal is to learn to read, and through this program at Rabbittown, I was able to get much better at it, so I can move to another program and get where I should have from an early age,” Withers said.

“My biggest mistakes were falling in with a bad crowd and dropping out of school. I made some bad choices, but the people here at Rabbittown looked past that and really helped me get to where I want to go.”

He said video games helped him to stay away from trouble as a youth, and the knowledge he has of computers is helping him educate himself. He is reading a host of textbooks on his tablet and if he doesn’t understand a word or can’t pronounce another, he highlights it and the tablet will read it to him.

The students who attend Rabbittown Learners Program are first tested to determine their individual education level and then are accepted if they are identified as being at a grade level from kindergarten to Grade 6, are 19 years of age or older, and if seats are available.

The program operates on a continuous intake basis, so enrolment continues throughout the academic year.

For most students there is no cost, and all books and materials are provided free of charge. The program is funded significantly by the Newfoundland and Labrador government and requires 24 students to operate at any given time.

Financial support is also provided by other agencies to purchase seats in the program and, in some cases, provide financial support to students.

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