Leo’s Story

Leo Apr 27, 2011 442 edge burn

It’s October 13, 2010 and I’m driving over the Lions Gate Bridge. My cell phone rings and the display shows that it’s the adoption agency. Mid-span on the bridge, it’s impossible to pull over but this is “the call”. I answer.

Just off the bridge, I’m able to pull to one side – the driving equivalent of needing to sit down. I’m told that a woman who is placing her baby up for adoption has chosen me. I’m excited. Stunned. Terrified. Abruptly, the strip has shown blue and I’m pregnant. Due in three months.

My adoption path started a year earlier and at the time it felt as though it would take forever, if it happened at all. I was single when I began the process and single women are not always at the top of the list for birth parents. In fact, in early discussions with my adoption agency I was told I would never be selected by a BC woman for adoption of a newborn – in fact they hadn’t matched a single woman with a birth mom in well over ten years. I was okay with this as I had never really experienced “baby fever”. I’d be great with an older child – but hopefully a child young enough that we’d still experience some of those early milestones together. Continue reading “Leo’s Story”

Family Place: Good Times for Families

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.

Kale plays blocks with volunteer Katie
Kale plays blocks with volunteer Katie

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.

Family Place Regulars
Family Place Regulars ham it up

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.

Elepahnt Head Toy
Action Shot of Weird Elephant Head Toy

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.”

Young girl and her Grandma
Young girl and her Grandma

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.”


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Controversial vision for new Grimston Park playground

This time next year, Grimston Park could look substantially different.

The summer wading pool and winter toboggan hill will remain untouched, as will the lacrosse box and tennis courts. But the towering adventure playground with the plunging slides and the rattling drawbridge will be gone. So too the iconic tires cupping the border of the playground at the edge of the steep slope to the lacrosse box. Replacing these will be … well, we don’t know exactly what yet.

Grimston Park adventure playground today

Today was the day of the first public consultation about the park. After the brouhaha over the proposal to build a school in the park, the city’s Parks & Rec folks have wisely decided to engage in some reasonably well-publicized community outreach before messing with the West End’s biggest park. Present were Andrew Banks, the city’s parks maintenance manager, and Richard Findlay, the landscape architect hired to re-imagine Grimston’s playground.

In the photo below (click to enlarge), you can see an aerial map of the playground that shows which section is under consideration. The whole playground area is coming out (though Andrew told us the city will try to recycle materials if possible), but the rest of the park will remain largely untouched. One option that is being considered is to take over a portion of the current playground footprint for a toddler-oriented space, and claiming some of the hill below (between the playground and the lacrosse box) for a more physically challenging ‘big kid’ play area. The traditional sledding area between the ‘Welcome to New Westminster’ garden bed and Nanaimo St. will be preserved.

Grimston Park consultation diagram, showing playground footprint and relation to other park features.
Grimston Park consultation diagram, showing playground footprint and relation to other park features.

As fun as Grimston’ s current play equipment may be, it is both far too expensive to replicate (approximately two to three times the $250,000 budget) and fails to meet current playground safety standards due to the fall risk from those tall towers. So, Andrew and Richard are hoping the West End will get behind some out-of-the-box ideas for a park. Here’s the idea board they showed at the playground consultation:

Grimston Park playground ideas
Grimston Park playground ideas

Inspired by Richmond’s Garden City Park, New Westminster’s planners are exploring the idea of integrating non-traditional play structures that integrate existing landscape features, from the Stewardson-facing slope to the beloved wading pool.

Playscapes, a blog about playground design, describes some of the unique features of Garden City Park:

This is my new favorite playground…it has all the things I like to see.
A creek bed, water play, jumping stones, an outdoor theatre, natural wood and rocks to climb on, plenty of sand…and colored poles stuck in the ground for kids to play tag through are a personal favorite design feature.

And, here’s a video that illustrates the concept behind parks like Garden City:

Garden City – shaw segment – May 2008 from space2place on Vimeo.

With the caveat that at a cost of approximately $1 million, repeating Richmond’s celebrated park is out of scope, Richard and Andrew are hoping that a similar approach could bring a fresh style of play to New Westminster parks. Some of the ideas they’re kicking around include integrating an artificial creek winding down the hill that would use water drained from the wading pool in summer and possibly collected from rainfall or pumped by hand in spring and fall. Or a tightrope with handholds (think Y-shaped) to practice balance. Or climbable, slide-able sculptural pieces that could serve as both public art and play structure.

In our household, we are split on whether these ideas are the way to go. There are some good examples of free-form play equipment and sculptural parks, but there’s definitely a risk that the final structure could be too stark and simple for kids to enjoy. I am relieved to hear the new design is going to be safer and include at least some toddler-friendly equipment (the current park is geared for older kids, but our two-year-old is easily tall enough to climb up the adventure playground – and does whether or not we are there to spot him. Yet, I don’t want the park to put such a focus on “safety” that it’s no longer a fun place to play.

It seems some of our neighbours have the same concern. As I was just finishing this post, I received an email from Maryann Mortensen, who successfully led the campaign against building a school in Grimston Park. She and Trevor Frith have sent the following letter around to West End residents and City Hall (emphasis mine):

Hello all,

City Hall staffer, Andrew Banks and the playground designer Richard (last name fails me) met with the public today at Grimston Park from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. to discuss the demolition of the playground and construction of a new playground for September 2009.  The time line is tight and our input should be swift if we want our wishes and concerns to be taken into consideration.

After talking with Andrew Banks, of City Hall and Richard (designer) tonight, we have some thoughts.

On the whole we believe the City is trying to give us the best bang for our dollar with the available funds for the replacement of the playground ($230,000).  I also believe that the City is genuine in its expressed desire that we are on board with whatever is constructed in place of our beloved wooden structure and tires.

We also understand that playground equipment is ridiculously expensive and that Canadian Standards Association requirements seriously limit the creativity of playground equipment.  It should be obvious to most that Grimston’s playground requires extensive work.

The concern we have is that the current playground at Grimston Park is already a downgrade from its last version.  The playground used to have a second tier at the top of the wooden structure with twin slides traveling down the large slope, a zip line and a cool digger with a dumping truck.  In recent months, according to Mr. Banks, we lost our fireman’s pole due to vandalism (someone sawed it off).

To replace the existing playground as is, according to Richard, would cost in the order of $750,000.  The suggested September 2009 model, with the best intentions of Andrew and Richard would not come close to the uniqueness, usability and value of what we currently have, due to budget constraints.  One has to question why our playground keeps getting downgraded. We believe that Andrew and Richard brought some decent ideas forward but the costs will prevent us from attaining a playground on a similar scale to what we have come to enjoy.

Some ideas we are floating are a request to City Hall for a phased approach with additional funds made available at a specified later date.  Each year the City has a budget of $700,000 to manage all its playgrounds.  Another possibility is petitioning City Hall now for more money or making requests for donations from private industry.

We would appreciate your thoughts on this and any suggestions you might have.

Warm Regards,
MaryAnn Mortensen & Trevor Frith

What do you think? What kind of a playground do you want to see in Grimston? Would you support asking for donations from a corporate sponsor if it meant Grimston had adequate funds to replace the play equipment without downgrading?

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