Existing community facilities to be used instead, say planners
BY JENNIFER CHORNLEY
Mandy Caughlin was browsing her social media feed when one specific to the Niagara Region’s EarlyON Child and Family Centres jumped out.
The post stated it was shutting down two nearby locations frequented by Pelham families, and amalgamating them into a central location in Welland.
The two locations affected are the Fenwick Satellite Office located at 1050 Church Street, which is closing February 1, and a Welland Satellite Office located at 735 South Pelham Road, closing on December 19.
EarlyON Child and Family Centres provide free drop-in programs for children from birth to six years of age, their parents and caregivers.
The centres are family-focused, offering space for Niagara’s children to “learn, play and connect with others,” according to the organization’s promotion materials.
Parents and caregivers stay with their kids and together experience “the many benefits these centres provide.”
Programs and services are free and open to all families and include arts and crafts, physical activities, language skills, math skills and nutrition.
Family and Community Services (FACS) Niagara EarlyON Program Director Adrian McKenzie explained the centres are sub-contracted by the Region through FACS Niagara, who is responsible for the day-to-day operation and management.
Caughlin and her son have been participating for the past two years. For her, as a new mother and resident in Fenwick, it was a great way to connect with other parents and residents in the community.
“I was able to participate in an infant massage class and from there, connections grew,” she said. “Since then, I have been able to organize play dates. It gives a sense of community for all moms alike.”
Allison Peters, an 11-year resident of Fenwick, has participated in the EarlyON program for seven and a half years with her three children, aged seven, six, and three.
Peters’ is one of many families that have benefitted from the program’s location.
“When my oldest son was younger he needed to be weighed on a regular basis, so it saved me from having to drive out of the community with a new baby.”
The Peters family, consisting of a boy and two girls, enjoy the all aspects of the program including circle time, active play area, crafts, play with toys they don’t have at home and the healthy snacks.
“They just love it. The staff are just amazing and they provide an even better program than the Welland location,” Peters said. “Even the facility location is bigger than the two Welland ones.”
The EarlyON program is a place for her three year old to play and meet new kids.
“There’s not a lot of programs in the community other than the library, so it’s nice to be able to get out into the fresh air and walk to the program,” Peters said. “It’s good that that the Library has programming for the kids, but some families just can’t afford to pay for them in some cases.”
Fonthill resident Stephanie Stokes frequents both locations. Stokes says her “favourite” location is Fenwick, while her three year old’s is South Pelham Road as it has a toy library.
“He’s a non-stop kid and gets very excited when we go pick out a new toy every two weeks,” Stokes said.
The Stokes children have benefitted from the program as it is a place to for them play freely with bigger interactive toys like kitchen centres, enjoy messier projects like painting, and interact in story time with other kids their ages.
Stokes also likes the fact there are weekly community outings for which the sign-up lists are always full.
“I was shocked when I heard the news, especially since it’s always busy when I go. I was crushed at the thought of the program not being there anymore.”
Mandy Caughlin is disappointed the centres are amalgamating with the Welland Young Street location.
“Location is a barrier to access. Fonthill and Fenwick are rural areas. This makes accessing the Welland location difficult, especially since there is no public transportation available between the larger communities and us,” Caughlin said.
“It was nice. We could just walk down the street and not worry about having to pack up the little one in the car. We have been to the downtown Welland location. It’s difficult to get there and the parking is an issue,” Caughlin said. “I went there once and won’t be going back.”
Peters echoed Caughlin’s concerns about the Young Street location, asserting that there are only six spots while other spaces are specifically designated for other things.
“Where do they expect the families to park if they aren’t just being dropped off or if they take public transit?”
Peters noted that even with the newest centre located at Seaway Mall, it’s still an inconvenience to trek the kids across a parking lot.
FACS’ Adrian McKenzie did acknowledge, “Parking is limited at the Young Street location, so we have arranged an agreement with the funeral home across the street for additional parking.” Patrons are also able to park at the market and street parking is available, all in proximity to the Young Street centre.
Caughlin said programs such as EarlyON are “vital” to smaller communities like Fenwick and Fonthill as “there’s no access to all of the other services that some of the larger communities have.”
Examples she provided included private programming for sports, music, and parenting classes, aquatic centres, larger Indoor playgrounds, the Niagara Children’s Centre, and malls.
Michelle Hoytema and her family just moved to the Fenwick area a year ago and said the EarlyON program has been a “community lifeline” for her.
For her, the Fenwick location has been the middle ground for getting information that may not always be necessarily available. She said the program is a wealth of information and provided her with resources on how to deal with the challenges of breastfeeding.
“We come from Milton, where there are so many resources available including access to health care professionals and then we moved here and there isn’t nearly as much as what was offered there,” Hoytema said.
Another important aspect for Hoytema is the interaction with the other parents and caregivers and allowing for sharing of information parents face daily upbring their children.
Hoytema has a “very active” two-year-old daughter and two-month-old son. Her daughter enjoys meeting other kids and most of all, “loves storytime.”
“It gets me out of the house and the ability to relax [once there],” Hoytema said.
“To cut the program from our area and not understand the importance it has on a small outlying community such as this is devastating, I am upset.”
Although the “bricks-and-mortar” locations are changing, McKenzie said, “our plan is to continue to offer programming in those communities at various existing locations and in partnership with other community service providers such as the local libraries and community centres.”
Funding is an aspect with the EarlyON program FACS Niagara is working with and because the public funding is, “limited, we are working to provide the best possible service with the funds that we have. In this case, we have chosen to invest in programming rather than bricks and mortar.”
FACS Niagara is engaging with community partners and taking advantage of existing infrastructure like libraries and community centres to reduce costs while expanding its community reach, McKenzie said. “Working with our community partners will expose more families to the EarlyON programs and will help us to grow the EarlyON community.”
With parent and caregiver concerns of programming potentially being lost in rural communities like Pelham, McKenzie said, “These changes also address our long-term plan for sustainability of the EarlyON programs in our community.”
“We will still be offering programming locally within these communities,” McKenzie said.
Using Fonthill as an example, he said an outreach program would be running at the community centre.
In regards to the current staff employed at the satellite locations, he said, “Under our current service agreement with the Region we do not plan on reducing staff as a result of our program changes. They will be redeployed to offer programming at various locations in the Welland, Fenwick and Fonthill communities.”
Over the next few months, the Region will be seeking proposals from the community to operate the EarlyON programs.
“We are proactively aligning our model with the province’s goals for programming that is accessible, modern, inclusive and co-located with other community service providers,” McKenzie said.
“These changes will position the community well for future and continued funding of EarlyON programs so that families can continue to enjoy quality programming with their children.”
McKenzie says he has been interacting with the community on social media, and that pages will be updated regularly to reflect new programming schedules.
In the meantime, on November 29, Paul Bryant created a petition and left a copy at the Fenwick Avondale. The petition was organized in support of keeping the two locations operating, especially for South Pelham Road, as it was a convenient location for many Pelham residents. Bryant also added the Fenwick location was of great benefit as many families were able to walk there.
As of press time, some 120 signatures had been collected.
Bryant and his family used the EarlyON program with their two grandchildren, ages four and six. Even though both children are now in school, he says the benefit of having this free program available for all children is that it develops structure and socialization skills.
“It’s Ground Zero for a child’s development,” Bryant said. “The skills they learn through play, various activities and story time, they can take with them as they transition into full-time school.”
“Plus, the fact that it’s free helps many families, especially with the rising costs of living.”
Along with the petition, Bryant said he also brought the matter to the attention of Pelham Regional Councillor Diana Huson and Mayor Marvin Junkin.