Starting in January, Northumberland County begins its transformation of the Ontario Early Years program in the hopes of bringing more diverse services to more children and their parents. But for some, it is a sad departure from a much-loved model at the local YMCA.
The reasons for the changes are simple: the Ontario government no longer wishes to run the program, at the same time, it hopes to expand the services for young children and their parents, making it more localized. It will direct the program by providing guidelines, mandates, and some money, but leave it to the local municipalities to execute it.
It is a lofty goal for the program, which started 14 years ago in 2003. One of the first locations was the Cobourg YMCA. Other places opened over time in Port Hope, Brighton, Campbellford, Hastings, and Port Hope.
Earlier this year, Indira Naidoo-Harris, the provincial politician responsible for the Early Years Program and Child Care, announced a massive expansion of 100,000 spaces in daycare over the next five years, along with an overhaul of the Early Years Program into a more streamlined system.
However, for some parents, like Keira Thompson, of Port Hope, a young mother of a toddler, the closure of the YMCA Early Years Program is a significant loss. Thompson said the YMCA provided a unique, diverse set of programs using all the resources special to its facility.
An online petition was created gathering close to 700 signatures, but Northumberland County Council is expected to pass amendments to its procedural bylaws at its Dec. 13 meeting no longer allowing internet-based petitions.
Thompson and her supporters were in agreement with some of the changes. The plan for Cobourg is to open two locations for the program. She hoped to convince the county to make one of those the YMCA.
When the county takes over, it will be moving all the programs into local schools, as mandated by the province. And, while the YMCA has submitted a request for proposals to be involved with the new program, its future is uncertain. (It will continue to offer its child care and child-minding services for members and the community, just not the Early Years Programs, according to Eunice Kirkpatrick, the Chief Executive Officer at the YMCA, in a recent interview.)
It represents a massive expansion of the child care programs offered by the county. Before taking on the Early Years Program renamed Early On Program starting Jan. 1, it supported 28 daycare centres across the county, providing about 1,500 spaces for children.
The difference between the two programs is critical. Daycare centres are places where parents drop off children to be looked after while they work. The Early On Program provides programs and services for children and parents.
As Lesley Patterson, the Early Years Services Manager for the county said in a recent interview, babies and children do not come with operating manuals. For many parents, it can be challenging to raise babies and children. The programs offered by the Early On Program will build upon existing services and activities, explicitly aimed at concentrating those needs. These could be as simple as providing opportunities for structured time together – cooking a meal, having a picnic, playtime and other activities, Patterson said.
For others, it can be accessing services, like speech therapists, nurses, hearing specialists, and to get questions or concerns answered, she added. But beyond this, parents may need help getting information and support for housing, social services, and similar needs, she explained.
More importantly, it is a chance for parents to network, give encouragement and share their experiences. By coming together, informal information can be exchanged, as well as helping parents feel less isolated.
The county took on a significant survey and public consultation, getting input from over 1,600 parents and holding four focus groups in Cobourg, Port Hope, Colborne, and Campbellford, meeting with 24 parents directly. The county also studied census data and other numbers to get a picture locally.
The results were varied and vital to the creation of the new program expected in Northumberland. The vast majority of parents attended the Cobourg program at the YMCA, with just over 600 of survey respondents saying use the existing program. Port Hope, Hastings, and Brighton were the next best attended.
Just under one-third attended the Early Years once. Yet, 22 percent of respondents said they regularly come, more than 20 times per year. And, while a majority did not identify themselves culturally, the survey found Indigenous families were some of the primary users of the Early Years Program, along with newcomers to Canada.
Some of the biggest hurdles for the program is the lack of public information, according to the survey. Parents said the hours were not convenient, work commitments and a lack of knowledge about the programs were barriers to participating. Transportation was also an issue, plus a feeling of not being welcomed was a concern.
Patterson said these are addressed under the new program. By expanding the program to nine centres across the county will make it more accessible. A publicity and education campaign will launch next month. The current programs will continue for at least six months. This will give time to renovate the schools and prepare programs.
One immediate change in West Northumberland will be the opening of a new program at St. Joseph Catholic Elementary School on D’Arcy Street.
The most significant transformation will take place shortly, as the county creates community hubs, integrating the local daycare, Early On and schools into a collaborative partnership to benefit children, parents, and families. The idea of having the Early On program in the schools is to centralize services. It is not a new idea as schools were previously opened after teaching hours for recreational and educational programs for children and adults. It was nothing to see local Scouts, adult education and sports teams using school facilities going back some 20 or 30 years ago.