Kale has started recognizing the place as we open the door and go in, a soft whoosh as the air transfers and the sudden cacophany of child play noises replaces the traffic whizzing by on the street. He starts kicking his feet and arching his back, straining mightily to get out of the stroller and get to the TOYS and the FUN as fast as possible.
We go to Family Place, located at 101 – 93 Sixth Street, probably twice a week these days. In the world of one year old busy little bees, distraction is the key between Breakfast and Snack, and before Nap and Afternoon Errands take up the rest of our day. When he was first born, I just couldn’t get my exhausted act together enough to get out of the house anytime before 1pm, but now that we have a routine established, it’s a rare morning when we aren’t out and about by about 9am.
Among other things, Family Place is a drop-in play centre aimed at the 0-5 set (Monday to Friday 9:30-11:30am and also Mondays and Tuesdays 1-3pm), and that’s the main reason why Kale and I hike down to Family Place with regularity. But it’s considerably more than that. It’s mandate is “to promote, encourage and provide family related services and learning skills programs with a preventative and educational focus aimed at low income individuals”. While Kale and I don’t necessarily fit the target demographic, we are welcomed with open arms by all nine employees, and the 20 or so regular volunteers. They greet Kale and I and know us by name, and we are regularly offered a spot in programs run by Family Place. Even the man hired to do some maintenance was pleasant to Kale and got down to Kale’s level to let him check out a full face beard, a sight Kale’s never seen and was fascinated with.
You can find a calendar of events at the check in area at the Sixth Street site, or on their website here. It outlines the schedule for the month, including the offered programs. Programs like: a monthly birthday party for all children who have had a birthday that month; the Toy Lending Library, where you may borrow a toy to try out at home (Kale loves this one); or a twice-monthly Clothing Exchange where parents may fill a bag full of clean, usable clothing for their growing sprouts. Other programs are aimed at helping parents expand their skills – programs such as Nobody’s Perfect, a free parenting course to help parents overcome some of the more challenging parts of being a parent while their children are being watched by qualified Early Childhood Educators. Plus, Family Place offers monthly visits from a Public Health Nurse, an Infant Development Specialist, a Supported Childcare Specialist and a Speech Therapist in a relaxed atmosphere where questions are encouraged and you don’t have to wait months for an appointment or feel intimidated in a sterile office.
Marjorie Staal, Executive Director of Family Place, came to her position through a series of events:
“I came to work here as a result of my involvment on the Board of Directors. In the late eighties, there was a working group formed from people in the community who saw a need – the school board, P arks and Rec, Family Services, Purpose Society, et cetera – and with the Health Unit. I had worked at Lord Tweedsmuir and knew the nurse personally and she phoned one day and asked me to come to a meeting because they needed a parent to “keep us real”. So we formed a Board, I became Chair, we applied for and were granted some funding, and we hired an executive director. Staff changed, and eventually the rest of the Board asked me to take it over temporarily and the rest is history!”
Kale loves wandering around the play area, playing with the many fun and interactive toys. Favourites include the kitchen with play food, this weird fabric elephant funnel thing that you put balls in the top of it’s head and they pop out the bottom, and a bead rack toy – his fascination with this one led to a purchase for one at home. But he’s not picky and likes to play with dolls, dinky cars, trains, blocks, and any other number of brightly coloured sturdy toys. He loves it, and I really enjoy talking to other parents and having a destination we can get out of the house to go to that doesn’t cost us anything.
Staal says “Family Place is important for New Westminster because it is a family-driven program. It’s a program not just for parents or just for children, but a program for both. Both parent and child are important to us. We are the first point of contact for a lot of families. We do a lot of referrals to other organizations or activities in New Westminster, like the library or Parks and Rec. In New West we are experiencing changing demographics with families of young children and this is often the first place they come to visit.”
The usual drop-in play session is about 90 minutes and if I need to take a break and use the washroom, a staff member or volunteer can spell me off for a break. They also offer coffee and tea to parents in a special parents only room, which can provide an important brief rest for stressed out parents. A song to signal clean-up time (“Clean up, clean up, everbody everywhere, clean up clean up everybody do your share”), and afterward, we all line up and wash our hands in the two non-gender-specific spacious washrooms. Then comes Snack Time where we get some toddler friendly finger food like cut up apples and cereal pieces on brightly coloured plates with juice, or if requested, water. To cap it off, we have Circle Time and sing songs and do actions while sitting peacefully in laps. Kale’s an active little goober, so this last bit can be a challenge for him, but with repetition, he’s getting much better at sitting and clapping along.
Family Place offers membership, although it’s not mandatory to be a member to take advantage of their programming. Members do get some privileges – for example, to access the Toy Lending Library, you do need to be a member. Memberships are inexpensive at $10 annually, and Staal estimates that there are currently about 60 members.
Staal says Family Place’s largest challenge is funding – getting it, managing it, and getting some more. They are funded largely by the Ministry for Children and Family Development, Fraser Health Authority, Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General – Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch, and various forms of fundraising events as well as donations. They also receive funding from the United Way of the Lower Mainland and are registered under the Society Act and have charity status with Revenue Canada.
The future of Family Place is hopefully to grow and expand. In addition to the main site on Sixth Street, Family Place operates a drop in centre Uptown, at Royal City Centre on Fridays from 9:30-11:30am, and, says Staal, “our future is hopefully to expand into some more neighbourhoods. I would like to see an offsite program in Sapperton and Queensborough.”
It’s a lot to juggle. But it’s worth it, according to Staal. ” I”m most proud of the parents here who use our services and then go back to work, or make friends here, or who go back to school. I’m also really proud of the parents who are just more confident in themselves as parents after they take a program here, or just observe other families.”