Always Ask for Help tells the inspirational true story of Arnie Stewart, the “Forrest Gump” of literacy, and highlights the real life effects of never learning to read and write. It tells of an amazing partnership that had the power to change the education system in Canada and United States. The story follows “Arnie” Stewart from his humble beginnings as an extremely impoverished child growing up with 11 siblings in the small mining town of Cobalt, Ontario Canada. To his journey through fatherhood and eventually his work with teacher and friend, Janet Lee.
As a child, Arnie barely learned to read or write. At the age of 15, he was kicked out of school and told that he would ever amount to anything. His father gave him a few dollars and told him that he had to leave home. Arnie set out on his journey into adulthood with the reading and writing skills of a third grader. In order to survive, he slept in the bushes, ate out of garbage cans and lived in parked cars. Eventually, Arnie met a girl, who, out of compassion, brought him a sandwich. They fell in love and got married. Together, they had two children. The turning point for Arnie was the day he had to admit to his children that he could barely read. He knew he had to ask for help.
Arnie found tutors and sought help at a literacy center. When he told his story, everyone always encouraged him to share it with other students. This is when he became a motivational speaker at prisons and schools. All alone on his travels, his low literacy made it impossible to find new locations. Since he couldn't read the road signs, he decided to find each location the night before and sleep overnight in his car. The mornings were cold for Arnie but he managed to break the ice in the lake to shave before each speech.
Janet Lee was a teacher in a high school when Arnie came to speak. He was visibly frightened when telling his story but she could tell that her students were more moved than ever. Her tough eleventh grade boys cried with their hoods covering their faces and afterwards approached her asking for help. She had worked to reach these tough students all year and Arnie had done the impossible in one hour.
After his speech Janet approached Arnie saying, "You don't know me but I want to write your book." This launched an eight year journey neither one of them could have imagined. During her research, she made sure Arnie had a place to stay and got paid for his speeches. She drove him to each location so he would not get lost. They travelled to over 72 audiences together telling Arnie's story and handing out Arnie cards with a saying, “Always Ask for Help.” She went with Arnie and his wife Barb to Cobalt where she met Arnie's family and stood in front of the hill where his family home once stood.
Every audience of students sat absolutely silent during Arnie's speeches and then lined up to meet him after he was done. During their work together, Janet discovered that Arnie, in his late 50s, still could barely read. She thought of the best way to motivate him would be to get the children to write letters. They started asking students to write to Arnie. Within weeks, thousands of letters started to pour in. Reading these letters and writing back to each school helped Arnie's reading and writing improve.
Driving all across Ontario, Arnie and Janet became best friends sharing their life stories and dreaming about how they could make a difference in the education system and businesses. They hoped to start a foundation for literacy to create engaging resources for adults with basic education and supports for the people who wanted to help. They came up with training programs for businesses and awards for the ones who made strides towards change. Arnie and Janet dreamed of making the Arnie Card a symbol of empathy and goodwill in the world. Their foundation was called FENIX because that is how Arnie thought the word Phoenix was spelled.
Arnie rose from the ashes of his oppressed childhood and became a well- known advocate for literacy in Canada. Janet Lee was his teacher and friend who is determined to continue their dreams of changing the system. Arnie Stewart passed away in 2012 of Cancer. His last words to his friend, Janet Lee were "Tell the kids to never be afraid and to always ask for help."
As Always Ask for Help unfolds, the narrative transcends Arnie Stewart's historical struggles with literacy, reaching into the present day to explore the transformative impact of his story on individuals and institutions across Canada and the United States. By examining the ongoing efforts of present day individuals and institutions and sharing the poignant testimonials of students who have overcome low literacy, Always Ask for Help is a powerful testament to the enduring legacy of Arnie Stewart, a humble man who inspired thousands of individuals through his story of education, literacy and never giving up hope.