April Murphy, an Adult Basic Education student at VIU Cowichan, has gone from being unable to read to her children to becoming a leader in her classes. (Vancouver Island University photo)

From homeless to helping others: VIU’s adult education turns life around

April Murphy has battled illiteracy, homelessness, and addiction and mental health challenges.

By Jenn McGarrigle

April Murphy has battled illiteracy, homelessness, and addiction and mental health challenges.

Now the 33-year-old Vancouver Island University Cowichan Adult Basic Education student is well on her way to getting her high school diploma, after which she plans to enter the Community Mental Health Worker certificate program so she can help others overcome similar life situations. She hopes sharing her story will inspire others to see the possibilities.

“I went from being my own worst enemy to being my own best friend,” says Murphy. “I didn’t realize how good life could be if I was good to myself. The community at VIU has been amazing throughout this process. I don’t think I would be half as successful if it weren’t for the staff here cheering me on and pushing me to do better for myself.”

Growing up in the Cowichan Valley, Murphy’s educational struggles began at an early age — she dropped out in Grade 5 without ever having learned to read.

“It felt like a burden to bring myself to school,” she says. “It was tough. After I dropped out, I ended up in an alternative school for six months, and then after that I was just homeless.”

Murphy lived on the streets of Victoria until she got pregnant at age 18 and returned home. After giving birth to her second son, she decided it was time she learned to read so she enrolled in literacy courses at The Reading and Writing Centre — Malaspina’s storefront literacy program in downtown Duncan.

“My oldest son was going to be in kindergarten and I wanted to be able to read the bedtime stories the teacher sent home,” remembers the mother of four. “But I had this big block about learning because of my earlier experiences — I was so afraid of failing.”

After reaching a certain reading proficiency, Murphy was able to enrol in adult upgrading courses through what was then Malaspina University-College. She experienced a major hiccup in her educational journey after suffering from a grand mal seizure in 2013, which caused epileptic psychosis. In 2016, after struggling for years to regain her mental health, she bumped into Joanna Lord, one of her Adult Basic Education Instructors at VIU Cowichan, while out and about in the community. Lord talked her into coming back to school.

“Joanna has been awesome — she’s definitely been given a gift to inspire people to do the best they can,” says Murphy. “Summer [Crosson, another Adult Basic Education instructor] is the same, she has a way of helping you see that you can do this. All of the staff at the Cowichan Campus bring a lot of hope to people, I find it like a family network.”

Lord, who met Murphy in 2010 when she first signed up for upgrading courses, says her story is one of incredible resilience and determination.

“April is the epitome of an ABE student, overcoming multiple barriers to continue her education, and acting as a role model for her children and extended family,” says Lord.

Crosson says Murphy has become a leader at VIU and she looks forward to watching her take on new leadership roles in the community.

“Her enthusiasm, kindness and sense of humour are a welcome contribution in the classroom — she contributes to a sense of teamwork and solidarity amongst her fellow students,” says Crosson.

Murphy’s next step is to take the Community Mental Health Worker program and become a shelter worker.

“We need more community support workers in the Cowichan Valley, the homeless population is only going to continue to rise,” she says. “I just want to give back to this area, which has given so much to me.”

To learn more about Adult Basic Education courses at VIU Cowichan, see the VIU Cowichan website.

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