She enters the Little Red Reading House, mask-clad and knapsack in tow. Our hellos are underscored by the sound of the rain hitting the pavement outside. She shakes the droplets from her umbrella and leans it against the wall of the front hall. Slipping off her shoes, she proceeds into the house.
The way Dilshad looks throughout the house – it reminds me of the way an adult might react to their childhood home decades after moving. There is wonder in her eyes. It’s as if every picture hanging on the walls, every toy resting in the baskets and every book occupying the shelves holds a memory for her.
She makes herself comfortable on the large leather loveseat in the living room, tucking her feet beneath her and leaning into its cushioned arm. The light of the reading lamps fill the room with a warm glow. I ask her how she began volunteering for Calgary Reads.
It was 2015, and Calgary Reads had newly introduced wee read to her daughters’ school. They were in search of volunteers to help with the program, particularly parents. The timing was opportune, as her youngest daughter, Philoza, was finally old enough that Dilshad could make a full-time commitment to something outside the home.
She had never heard of Calgary Reads, but a quote hanging in the hallway of her daughters’ school had her thinking. It takes a village to raise a child, the quote read.
“It made me think of all the adults in my daughters’ lives who have and will continue to shape who they will become,” she reflects. She wondered about what impact she might make in another child’s life through wee read.
It didn’t take long for Dilshad to realize this impact. Years later, she recalls her favourite memory from volunteering: She was working with the Read On Up program, helping tutor a girl in grade three. At the end of their time together, the young girl gifted her a handmade thank-you card. For Dilshad, it put into perspective the significance of the work she had done. “The gratification you get,” she explains, “You can’t get that from any other work.”
I ask Dilshad about her time teaching wee read abroad, and her eyes light up. She readjusts in the love seat, making herself more comfortable and preparing to dive into the story.
Her husband is a faculty member at SAIT, and in years past, travelled to Belize with a group of students as part of a school-facilitated summer program. That summer in 2018, the international summer trip was to Zanzibar, a small island nation off the coast of East Africa. It was decided that the entire family would partake in that summer’s trip.
Dilshad saw an opportunity arise. She had witnessed the impact of wee read on children in Calgary, and she wanted to make that same difference in another community. She contacted Calgary Reads CEO Steacy Pinney about the idea, and she equipped Dilshad with the supplies she would need to make the idea a reality.
With their luggage stocked full of books, Dilshad and her family boarded a plane to Africa. They had partnered with a Zanzibaris organization called Learning For Life who worked with children ages 10 to 17 whose educations were cut short. Because of this, the age group was atypical for wee read, but the age difference did not seem to matter.
To Dilshad’s delight, the older children were engaged just the same. The program eventually became so popular that Dilshad and the group began offering night classes to adults in the community.
A few weeks later, they departed for Canada, leaving behind the books Calgary Reads had provided, and taking with them the memories of a life-changing experience.
The following summer, a similar opportunity arose – this time on an island in the Caribbean: Dominica.
“It was a much different experience from Zanzibar,” Dilshad notes. For one, it was a much more structured operation in Dominica, with staff from the partnered organization escorting them from place to place.
More significantly, however, was the difference in the age of the children compared to Zanzibar. In Dominica, the program was being facilitated out of preschools, daycares and summer camps. Naturally, the Dominican wee-readers were considerably younger. Once again, the group witnessed how the magic of reading, playing and dancing together transcended ages.
By the time Dilshad and her family left, they were overwhelmed by the gratitude they received from the Dominicans, and the enthusiasm they showed to know more about Calgary Reads.
Though the pandemic has put a temporary halt on her travel plans, Dilshad looks forward to bringing wee read to a new destination abroad as soon as she can.
Since her travels, she has kept busy assisting with community book drops and Calgary Reads’ lunch program. She and her daughter, Ziana, even had the opportunity to help the Little Red Reading House’s former Reader in Residence, Karen Scarlette, with her mural for CUPS.
Reflecting on her experience as a volunteer for Calgary Reads both here and abroad, she says she has witnessed growth in the children she has worked with, as well as herself. “It has helped me grow as a person, a parent, a community member, and a citizen.”