‘I learned to read when I was 36 after sleeping rough in Birmingham for 11 years’

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Hannah Joyce never attended school and ran away from home when she was 16 - left to sleep rough on the streets of Birmingham for 11 years

A mum who never went to school and spent 11 years sleeping rough in Birmingham city centre has learnt to read at the age of 36.

Hannah Joyce, now 37, grew up as one of seven children in a disadvantaged family in Ireland. She never attended school and was only taught to cook, clean and look after children. Hannah ran away from home at 16 and, with no family and no qualifications, she ended up living on the streets of Birmingham for 11 years. For many years, she lived alone with her dog, Bow.

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Three years ago, after recovering from drug addiction, she and her partner moved into their first home, and she fell pregnant with her first child, McKenzie. But, because she was still addicted to alcohol, social services took McKenzie away from her and into care when he was just nine days old.

Hannah stopped drinking immediately and then spent a year in the court system battling to get McKenzie back. She was told she would be more likely to get her son back if she could read, so she contacted the Birmingham Central branch of Read Easy.

Read Easy is a national charity that provides free, one-to-one lessons to help adults learn to read. There are about 2.4m adults in England alone who cannot read or can barely read. Hannah was paired with a volunteer teacher, Chelsey, and, during two 30-minute lessons at the Library of Birmingham each week, she learnt to read.

Hannah said: “I had the best time ever with Chelsey. We did quizzes and games and, when we ran out of books to read, Chelsey would go home, write her own book, and come back with it the next day. I started to really enjoy it. It became like going to have a coffee with a friend, but they’re also helping you to learn to read and write as well.”

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Hannah Joyce with her reading coach, Chelsey, after receiving certificates for completing the first two Read Easy modulesHannah Joyce with her reading coach, Chelsey, after receiving certificates for completing the first two Read Easy modules
Hannah Joyce with her reading coach, Chelsey, after receiving certificates for completing the first two Read Easy modules | Read Easy

It normally takes about a year to complete the Read Easy course, but Hannah - who had never experienced formal education in her life - completed the course in just 36 weeks. At the end of the course, she was given a certificate to mark her accomplishment.

Hannah said: “It was brilliant. They stood up, shook my hand and said: ‘We’ve really enjoyed your company, but you can now read by yourself.’ They said some more, but I can’t remember - I was too excited.”

In October last year, McKenzie was returned to Hannah - and every night since she has read him a bedtime story. Hannah said: “At night he goes: ‘Book, book, book,’ and then picks out the book he wants me to read. But he doesn’t like it when I read the book normally - he wants me to do all the sounds, like the barking for the dogs and the growling for the dragons.

“He absolutely loves books and, the way he’s already saying words, you’d never think he was almost two. He said, ‘happy birthday’ the other day.” She added: “I’ve already got his future planned. He’s going to school and then to college - I’ve saved up already - and then he’s going to have his own place, a wife and kids. He’s going to have the life I never had.”

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Hannah, who has never had a job, is now looking to start a vocational training course once McKenzie starts nursery. Her dream is to work in a restaurant. She said: “When you’re sitting down and having a meal or a coffee with friends or family, that’s when people are at their happiest.

“I used to see them through the window, or when I went into a restaurant to get a cup of water. I’d look around and think, it would be lovely to work in a place like this one day.”

If you know an adult who lives in Birmingham and cannot read, or if you would like to volunteer to help people learn to read, please visit: Ready Easy in Birmingham.

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