How health literacy training is helping YWCA St. John’s better serve its clients

Since 1925, YWCA St. John’s has had a long-standing community presence in the capital city of Newfoundland. Building on a deep history as a women-serving agency, the organization aims to provide programming committed to gender equity, and to creating opportunities for girls, women, gender diverse and 2SLGBTQIA+ people to learn, achieve and participate.

Program Manager Deanne Howlett recently worked with the team at ABC Life Literacy Canada on train-the-trainer activities through the Activate Learning program. Activate Learning is a literacy program focused on supporting and empowering the unique population of Newfoundland and Labrador. The program aims to improve the number of training opportunities for adult learners, employees and workplaces in the areas of employability and life skills, financial literacy, and health literacy.

Howlett thought it would be useful for her team to take part in some of the workshops offered through the program, and when she surveyed her staff on their interests, health literacy came out on top.

“Many of our staff were personally interested in health literacy and health advocacy, since being able to advocate for your health is something that’s not often talked about,” says Howlett. “We also felt that the topic of health literacy and accessibility to healthcare would be beneficial to our team in working with program participants, particularly newcomers.”

Howlett and her team participated in the “Map Out Your Health” workshop, which is part of the ABC Health Matters program through Activate Learning. The workshop, which is one of two health literacy workshops available, focuses on identifying the people and places in a community where someone can go for help with their health. The workshop is written and designed for adult literacy learners, but Howlett says it was beneficial to attend as service providers because it allowed them to look at the content from the perspective of their program participants.

“While a lot of the information wasn’t necessarily new for us, it gave us a different context of thinking about what access to health could look like from different perspectives and lived experiences,” she explains.

With most of their staff being born in Canada, knowledge of the provincial healthcare system can often be taken for granted. By covering the content in the workshop, it offered insight into how newcomers might not be aware of the health resources available to them.

Howlett says the workshop opened a discussion for her team about some of the barriers that newcomers might face, and how the YWCA might be able to further support newcomers, having put themselves in the shoes of their program participants. It also allowed them to speak openly about how they might be able to improve their existing programming and build out a list of helpful resources.

“[The workshop] sparked a lot of conversation about what resources exist that we might be able to offer to our program participants,” Howlett says. “It also allowed us to talk openly and think about the oppression that exists and how we can support the individuals that we work with. It was a great team-building exercise as well.”

Howlett liked the fact that the workshop was specific to Newfoundland and Labrador, as it outlined all the key locations people could go for help with their health. Due to the lack of family doctors in the province and overall access to healthcare, Howlett says that this information was really valuable to know in the event that they needed to support program participants.

“We talked about what services exist and what barriers there are in terms of accessing them. For example, if someone is not a permanent resident or if they’re an international student, will they be able to access various healthcare services? Thinking about those layers came up in the workshop and by exploring it together as a team, it allowed us to better build up our resources and address those issues and opportunities for advocacy.”

October is Health Literacy Month, making it a great opportunity to bring health literacy training to your community. To learn more about the ABC Health Matters program available, visit To learn more about the Activate Learning in Newfoundland and Labrador and to book a workshop, visit