Juliet Austin stepped into the Executive Director role at LIFE Cayman (‘Literacy Is For Everyone’) on the first day of October. Founded in 2012, LIFE is a not-for-profit organisation devoted to improving literacy in the Cayman Islands. Austin’s goals include building upon LIFE’s programmes and raising the organisation’s profile in the wider community.
In this interview, Austin talks about LIFE’s array of initiatives and the direction she hopes to lead the organisation.
Bio: Austin moved to Cayman in the mid-90’s and has taught English Language, Literature and Drama in secondary school. Previously, she was Education Manager at the National Trust for the Cayman Islands, and she co-authored ‘Fish Tea, a Collection of Caymanian Tales’. Austin is a founding member of the Special Needs Foundation Cayman.
— Can you please talk a bit about your background?
I am an educator, born and bred. I come from a family of educators. I moved here 25 years ago and worked as a high school English and drama teacher, so the majority of my career has been in Cayman.
Although I’ve not always stayed within the school environment, I’ve always skirted around education in some way, shape or form. During my time as Head of a Department, one of my goals was to ensure that literacy spanned not only all the years, but all subject areas as well. It became an umbrella for learning.
Literacy has always been a fascination for me. I went on to work for the National Trust of the Cayman Islands as their Education Programmes Manager, supporting environmental and historical programmes, making sure they were being delivered to schools, to the community.
Because I have an absolute passion for reading and writing, as part of that I spearheaded the production of ‘Fish Tea, A Collection of Caymanian Tales’ – co-authoring and managing the project. As a nation of storytellers, I believe in the power of stories to affect real change in Cayman.
One thing I’m particularly passionate about with education is making sure that it’s tailored to our country, our kids, our community.
I have had a somewhat unorthodox career in education, and I hope that this diversity will be an asset to LIFE as it moves into a new era. My youngest daughter was born with some additional needs. As a teacher, that took me off in a completely different direction. Along with other parents and educators, I co-founded the Special Needs Foundation of Cayman. From its grassroot beginnings, it has now grown into a powerful agent of change on the island.
As part of my journey, I homeschooled my youngest daughter, which meant teaching across the board, all subject areas. Everything that I did as her teacher taught me more about being a real educator than my entire career had, to date.
I adopted a thematic approach to the curriculum, aligning it, wherever possible, with literature to give learning a meaningful context. Literacy became the anchor because it connected the dots and gave a social, emotional and imaginative framework for learning to occur.
— How did you end up at LIFE?
I was approached to see whether I was interested in applying. The organisation started off as a Rotary Sunrise initiative, eventually taking on a life of its own in response to the community’s need. I took over from Marilyn Conolly, under whose tenure the organisation has grown over the last five years.
We’ve recently added to our staff. In July, Erica Dell’Oglio joined our team as our Volunteer & Programmes Coordinator. We’re in a stage of growth, with the addition of new staff members, but we also have 160-odd volunteers on board with us and their contributions are invaluable to us achieving our Mission to significantly impact literacy levels in our communities. They are key players in our organisation.
We may be relatively small but we are mighty. We have this army of volunteers that help us, some who are nothing short of superhuman.
— What are the core activities of LIFE?
Our mission is to make a significant impact on literacy levels in the Cayman Islands.
We currently run a paired reading programme, where the bulk of our volunteers are engaged. Volunteers are paired with students in local schools and read with them for 30 minutes every week, working within the framework of of each school’s literacy directives.
We have a very active Book Donation programme, run by one of our super volunteers, Erin Galatopoulos. She’s been on board longer than either of our staff members, and she is an absolute tour de force. We donate books to schools, and at the moment we have a project building suitably-levelled class libraries in all of our schools, in Cayman Brac and Grand Cayman to ensure that all students have access to quality reading resources.
The schools we work with are government schools. That’s our focus entirely at the moment. However, it is the generosity of our corporate sponsors and community partners who make all this possible by underwriting these donations. Schools contact us and we pair them up with appropriate donors.
We hold at least one Book Donations Drive annually. Secondhand books then go through a process of being cleaned and levelled, and then they are distributed through the schools appropriately.
We work closely with the Ministry of Education and the Department of Education Services to make sure we are working within their framework and supporting clear goals and directives. I don’t think that any literacy programmes can be fully successful unless we collaborate with government agencies and work together for the common good.
Other programmes include Partners in Print, which offers workshops for schools, teachers and parents. In 2019, we offered 48 workshops, and we had 888 attendees at those. They’re delivered by the teachers themselves. We support them to deliver these workshops because we know that literacy cannot be taught, cannot be improved and impacted unless it’s part of a wider long-term strategy. We know that we need to work with all age groups and that our programmes need to enter the home as well as the school and adult communities.
We also support community initiatives such as Child Month and Week of the Young Child. Our Little Free Library at Cayman Islands Hospital paediatric waiting room gives children the opportunity to read as part of their everyday lives. Anywhere we can find kids who need to read, we will be there.
We also have Levelled Literacy Intervention, which provides resources to the schools to make sure they’ve got the books and the ability to track literacy levels.
This is what we do: we match ‘want’ and ‘need’ with corporate sponsors, donors and volunteers. We put the two together and then help manage how to bring that project to life and the logistics of resourcing, tracking and accountability. As coordinators, we ensure that these programmes are impactful, meaningful, relevant, and have longevity.
That’s a continuing goal of ours, to make sure that, irrespective of what happens with staffing, politics — any of those things — that our programmes are self-sustaining. Because we’re an outside agency, it is sometimes easier for us to do that.
— If you look at Year 11 GCSE results, the government schools perform poorly in Maths compared to UK schools (41% to 60% pass rate), but in English, Cayman government schools outperform the UK (75% to 62%). Do you think that is evidence of LIFE’s impact?
I would like to think we have contributed to that success. However, it has to be said, teaching is the most noble of professions and we are constantly impressed with the quality of educational provision and innovation in Cayman’s schools. Teachers see us as their partners in raising literacy standards and our job is to support, enhance and provide the means by which they can do their jobs at the optimum level because that, ultimately, is how we can help our children achieve.
As for this bizarre time in our global history… Both our Programmes and Volunteer Coordinator and myself were recruited during this time and see COVID as a strange blessing of sorts. Our volunteers cannot go into schools right now. A lot of our programmes have had to adapt to these strange times in which we live. But, perhaps, it’s given us a bit of breathing space in which to evaluate our impact; to see what works, to listen to teachers. Literacy programmes are only as good as the infrastructure in which they operate, and we must ensure that we answer educational need and prioritise resources accordingly.
Both of our staff members are teachers. We’ve been in education for a very long time ourselves. We know the curriculum is full and recognise that teachers have got so much on their plates. We want to support them; we want to be there to enhance what they do and allow them to have the resources that they need to do their jobs.
We are extremely fortunate in Cayman to have a government that places real value on Education, and where literacy is a highly prized commodity. As such, the annual budget reflects this. But, while it may cover ‘need’, our work ensures that each school also has what they want for their students to succeed in today’s ever-changing global environment. We can boost schools, we can enhance what they currently do, and if we can provide that, then there is no reason for us not to become a regional leader in literacy.
To date, many of our resources have supported work in the primary and, to a lesser degree, secondary schools. However, for literacy programmes to really succeed, we want to offer ongoing programmes that cover the entire lifespan from early years to adult education.
As such, we are working on a strategic plan to address the needs of these different communities. We hope to collaborate with the Ministry of Education and Department of Education Services to track student progress as they move through the stages of life.
We want our programmes to grow with the child, so that literacy is always at the forefront of our communities and we can do this by identifying and addressing the range of social, cultural and economic barriers that may act as roadblocks to improvement in literacy. Our country already prioritises education and we aim to keep it at the forefront of the national agenda.
What we need to do now is explore, how do we create highly literate individuals, because one reason why I wanted to come to LIFE is I want to change the world. <Laughs.> That’s my Miss World speech!
I believe our organisation LIFE can do that, because if you can improve literacy levels, you invariably impact earning potential, health, nutrition, crime … According to UNESCO, high literacy levels can also make an impact on how women are perceived within societies.
LIFE’s work affects people’s lives in all manner of different ways, and that’s why we love our partnerships with other non-profit organisations. We want to work alongside them, for them to view us as partners in achieving joint goals.
— What nonprofits does LIFE partner with?
At the moment, building those partnerships is high on our agenda. Marilyn set the foundation, working with the YMCA and other non-profits with literacy programmes of their own.
LIFE has grown from its inception as a Rotary Sunrise reading initiative, but we still work closely with them and support their work and programmes in Cayman’s communities and schools.
Just this morning we were talking about how we want to be a part of NCFA, the Festival of the Arts. We want to be part of debate competitions. We want the community to see us as their first port of call for resources and literacy innovation; to be their go-to not-for-profit. We want to be that voice, so we can call people to account. Again, as an outside agency, it’s often easier to do that. Yes, there’s room for improvement, but at the moment I’m just building on Marilyn’s legacy over the past 5 years in strengthening those bonds.
— Are there any misconceptions in the community about what LIFE is and what the organisation does?
I don’t believe there are misconceptions. I think the organisation’s actions have spoken for themselves. What I would like to do is elevate its profile. Because we work behind the scenes, I would like to see LIFE’s Mission come to the fore and enter all facets of society.
We’ve just got a new website. We’re on Instagram now. We are working very hard now on our media reach.
We need our profile to be out there so that people recognise that good work that we do, so that people recognise the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of books we’ve donated to schools and organisations.
We’d love people to like our page. We’d love people to like our posts. We’d like people to know that we are their go-to organisation for literacy and education.