Early Childhood Council proposing next step to healthy families in Prince Albert

Donna Strauss, left, and Mick Gratias listen to a presentation Thursday. (Donna Barr/Herald contributor)

Donna Barr

Herald contributor

“There is a lot of passion in this room.”

These were the words of Donna Strauss after several dozen people gave their reasons as to why they would like to help establish a Family Resource Centre in Prince Albert.

Strauss is co-chair of the Early Childhood Council (ECC) in Prince Albert. She and Mick Gratias, Program Manager of KidsFirst Prince Albert, organized a Community Consultation Event held May 31st, that brought together representatives of the city’s educational and family support agencies.

“It’s something we should have had years ago,” said Rhonda Williams, her voice breaking as she addressed the group. Williams, Youth Services Manager at the YWCA says she has been working within groups homes for almost 10 years. “It’s just sad, to see kids coming through (group) homes that can’t be with their parents.” She elaborated, “It’s disheartening and, it’s hard for them, and sometimes, well suicide becomes a part.”

Williams hopes the outcome of the ECC’s Consultation Event will be, “that families can be able to raise their children, and be with their children, and do it in a healthy manner where they are all healthy and kids go to school. I just want kids to be with their parents, their healthy parents”

Dr. Shelley Storey of Community Mobilization Prince Albert was concise in summarizing the need to move ahead. “We need to strengthen our foundation, “said Storey.”Healthy families and healthy children create a healthy community.”

A Family Resource Centre would most likely be a drop-in style child and family-focused hub, in a location easily accessible to families. The overarching principle is that the family environment during pregnancy, infancy and early childhood is crucial to laying a foundation for later success in health, wellness, school and life.

This principle was supported in a presentation to ‘Build a Healthy Brain’ by Tricia McEwen of the Prince Albert Catholic School Division and Inclusive Learning Consultant for Saskatchewan Rivers School Division, Lambert Schwartzenberger. The presentation asserted that the most critical period in brain development occurs before 5 years old, and sets many of our life patterns.

“In education, we are always talking about how to improve graduation rates,” explained Schwartzenberger. “We are learning to focus on more areas, including starting when kids are 0-5 years.”

Other facilitators included Kathy Byl of KidsFirst Battleford and Jan Goughen, of KidsFirst Nipawin,

Family Resource Centres exist in several other Saskatchewan communities, with measurable successes. Often, several agencies partner under one roof, allowing a comprehensive range of programs to be delivered that enhance child and family well-being, while providing a social place where families can gather.

In Prince Albert, Gratias believes that the community needs to define the model that would be most effective. According to Gratias, “this is a universal, collaborative initiative for all demographics, all income levels, all cultures.”

“A Centre should provide easy accessibility and visibility in the community, in a place where families can participate in structured activities,” continued Gratias. He envisions a play area component, where parents can learn how to play with their children, learn how to interact with them, and understand why it is so important.

After exploring why families need support, attendees followed up by working on what a Family Resource Centre in Prince Albert could look like.

“I think the next steps are what will come out of this,” said Strauss, referring to the collaboration of community agencies. “I think it’s going to go quite quickly; there are opportunities out there for capital dollars, to do the renovations that could be required. It’s going to take a year or 18 months.

Gratias and Strauss have researched other Family Resource Centres in Saskatchewan. “When you look at all of those,” observes Gratias, “and the outcomes that are connected to those, you see improvements in all these different indicators of early childhood development, so you know they’re successful. That’s why we thought it would be a great idea for Prince Albert.”

Strauss believes governments at all levels will be receptive to considering a proposal, and would provide varying types of support whether financial or logistical.

“We have a relationship, both federally and provincially with our local politicians. They are aware of who we are and what we do. I feel confident that if we came forward with a request, they would take it forward for us” said Strauss. “The province seems to be quite motivated to support Family Resource Centres,” said Strauss, referencing the success of the provincial pilot projects.

“We believe this is a necessary next step for our community,” emphasized Strauss. “If we don’t start addressing these early childhood issues, we know, we’re paying the price in low graduation rates and other things. Good early development is a good indicator of what’s going to happen to that child as they grow up, so we better start dealing with them when they are pre-natal to age five, or we are certainly going to be dealing with them when they are 16, 17. A Family Resource Centre would be a place that families could access regularly to help build healthy life patterns. ”