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How the Toronto Library’s Dial-a-Story program helped this child of refugees learn English, one call at a time

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At age 6, a little boy with a lisp is told by his parents if he wants to succeed in Canada, he has to learn English. He’s the son of two refugees from Vietnam, neither of whom speak the language.

So his mother calls the Dial-A-Story program, a Toronto Public Library service that lets kids and their families call in to listen to a bedtime story at any time of day, free.

“She would hold the phone, dial (the hotline) every night, give me the phone and I would sit at the edge of her bed,” Andrew Do, now 29, tells the Star. “She couldn’t really read bedtime stories to me in English and she wanted me to learn English to succeed in school. This was her way to read bedtime stories to me.”

Today, Do works at a downtown Toronto think tank. He designs research projects, facilitates policy hack-a-thons and workshops for government clients. He has no lisp.

The ritual with his mother, which Do said started when he was in senior kindergarten around 1995 at the family’s condo at Keele St. and Finch Ave., gave him a love and appreciation for stories — and the confidence he lacked to tell his own.

“I think just hearing someone tell you a story kind of just gives you that confidence to articulate yourself,” he says.

A quick call to 416-395-5400 transports the listener to the 24-hour Dial-a-Story hotline, where on Wednesday morning the Star heard a woman’s kind, animated voice on the other end.

“Hi my name is Itah Sadu and boy, do I have a story to tell you,” the narrator says, in a recording, before launching into a morality tale about how a man named Gor decides which of his two daughters will inherit his wealth.

A caller has the choice between a story for “older” children up to age 12, or “younger” children under age 7, with the narrators and stories changing throughout the week.

In Sadu’s tale, which is for the younger audience, Gor asks his daughters to fill a room with just $5 — one purchases tons of things, the other a candle, to fill the room with light.

The story is a traditional tale, Sadu told the Star in a followup call. The Toronto storyteller, who owns the multicultural bookstore A Different Booklist on Bathurst St., near Bloor St. W., said she has been doing the recordings as a volunteer for several years.

Dial-a-Story, which is available in 16 languages, was created in 1989 by a consortium of the Caledon, Vaughan, Brampton and North York libraries.

The Toronto Public Library took over the service in 1998, after the libraries of the Toronto’s former municipalities merged with amalgamation.

The purpose of the program, said Peggy Thomas, Toronto Public Library manager of children’s services, is to make stories available to a child all the time, anywhere, any place their family has access to a phone.

“If you listen to it together and have conversations around it you’re developing your oral literacy as well, along with your listening skills,” she said.

The hotline had nearly 160,000 calls in 2017 alone, down some from a peak of 316,635 in 2007, said Thomas, who taught at the Toronto District School Board for 22 years before entering the world of libraries.

Sitting with a parent and calling the hotline, she said, gives children “an opportunity to be with someone who you love and admire and spend time with them exploring literature.”

Access to stories is crucial to the development of a young mind, said Raymond A. Mar, an associate professor of psychology at York University who has researched how children who are exposed to more kids’ books tend to be further along in their development beginning as early as age 4.

“We are intrinsically interested in other people,” Mar said. “The flow of stories told to us offer an insight or a window into other people.”

There are a lot of subtle aspects of Canadian culture — which may be invisible to native English speakers — that can be a challenge to people learning a second language, but that end up embedded in our stories, Mar said.

Through stories, “people not only learn or get access to language content, they also get access to cultural content and cultural knowledge,” he said.

Do’s father, Hieu Van Do, moved to Canada in 1984. His mother, Michelle Ann Le, joined in 1988 and he was born one year later.

The family’s nearest library was the York Woods Library at 1785 Finch Ave. W., a 20-minute walk from home.

Do said he vividly remembers one of the first times his father left him alone at the library after first asking the librarian to watch over his son, no older than 11, for an hour.

“We aren’t really a babysitter,” Do said the librarian replied, and so his father instead sat down and the two read together to pass the time. When his father did leave the library — just for an hour — Do said he was so engrossed he barely noticed.

“I just remember being enthralled,” said Do. “I didn’t really have a love of books before, I didn’t really have a love of stories before.”

By 2001, when his family moved to Vaughan, Do said he had learned to speak near-perfect English, an achievement he also credits to school, English-as-a-second-language classes and speech therapy for his lisp.

But when it came to completing his mandatory school community service hours, he decided he would take himself back to his childhood library on Finch.

“I was very dead set on going back to that library and volunteering at that library because I just had so many memories there,” he said. “I was in a position to tutor kids in reading, and reading stories to them as well.”

Emerald Bensadoun is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @twerk_vonnegut

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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