Ward 1 Councillor Marianne Stewart, foreground, attending last week's EarlyON focus group at Central United Church in Fenwick. GLORIA J KATCH PHOTO

Special to the VOICE

While funding is a definite concern, it’s clear that many participants attending last Tuesday’s focus group session at the Central United Church in Fenwick regard the EarlyON centre as priceless. Despite the frigid temperatures and blustery winds, many turned out to discuss and deliver information on why this was the best location for a local drop-in centre and children’s programming. This session was facilitated by Regional staff, and it’s just one piece of a bigger picture the Region is drawing in support of future services and programming for children.

“This is the only community centre in the area. Just having my kids socialize with kids that they will be going to school with, and develop those relationships is important. It’s not just an opportunity for kids, it’s an opportunity for moms to interact with other moms. It’s the mental health element for the moms,” said Tracey Rinaldo, who frequents EarlyON, and was one of the participants in the focus group.

This informal information session featured tables covered with large cardboard sheets marked with questions asking about preferred choices on delivering children’s services. Participants would mill about, discuss issues and make suggestions on sticky notes, which they attached to the sheets. A facilitator told the Voice that all of the information would be collected and synthesized at the end of the session.

Philip Johnson, one of the trustees for Fenwick United Church, reiterated Rinaldo’s sentiments, saying, “In rural areas people tend to get lonely, and they are more isolated,” which is one of many reasons the church has offered this “outreach service” for more than two decades to the community.

Family and Children’s Services Niagara (FACS) also offers seminars on issues like car seats for children and other parenting topics, Johnson noted. Looking through a binder, he indicated the Region has a lengthy plan titled: Ontario Early Years Child and Family Centres, which identifies communities with EarlyONs. He noted that on this plan’s map, many areas are highly populated, and he is pleased the Region and FACS were attempting to consider the rural locations, as well.

While Fenwick may currently be considered a rural area, local resident Gary Chambers, dubbed the unofficial “Mayor of Fenwick,” told the Voice that in the Town’s Official Plan, east Fenwick is designated for a significant amount of expansion in the near future. Ward 1 Councillor Marianne Stewart confirmed that the development is scheduled from Welland Road to Memorial Drive. There is also a senior’s home slated for development near Baxter and Welland Roads.

Chambers said many residents bring their grandchildren to the centre. In addition to the designated subdivisions and semi-independent-living facilities being added, Chambers said, “There is a lot of infill going on,” as well. He believes community services like the EarlyON centre need to remain in place as the population increases.

According to statistics compiled by FACS, a total of 217 families visited the Fenwick site.  Approximately 29% were from Fenwick, 26% reside in Pelham and Fonthill, while a significant remainder of families attend from other communities. The Fenwick site sees an average of 12 children per day.

According to Darlene Edgar, Director of Children’s Services for the Niagara Region, focus groups will be held in five locations across Niagara over the next few weeks to gather information that will be specific to the “unique needs in the community, and what that looks like in smaller, rural communities.”

Besides Fenwick, focus groups are scheduled in Smithville, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Thorold and Fort Erie. Factors like transportation availability, parking, building accessibility, rental costs and location size are all important, and will be included in determining the best location for these sites, she noted.

When the lack of transportation in rural Fenwick was mentioned, Edgar said, “That happens across the Region. Centres are set up where there are bus services. This is not unique to Pelham.”

However, she said travel time to different locations and bus routes are all aspects the Region has been examining already.

Tracey Rinaldo said she would not want to drive a half hour to get the same services she could have received in Fenwick. Resident Paul Bryant recalled the marketing guru Tom Vu’s mantra, which has become a real estate and traffic-driven sales cliche: “Location, location, location.”

“This is where everything blossoms and grows,” said Bryant. “We know all of our neighbours. It’s safe, and there are so many pluses to this center.”

By comparison, resident Jennifer Ziraldo, who has visited the EarlyON site in Welland, on the corner of Young and King Streets, noted that it wasn’t a good alternative for them, because of the distance from Fenwick, and the lack of available parking, especially during inclement weather and winter conditions.

“If you have to push your stroller all the way down the street, then you have to rely on all the people shoveling off their sidewalks,” she said.

She described the interior of the Welland site as “too congested” and “compartmentalized.”

The interior of the Fenwick EarlyON contains large rooms, allowing parents to watch their children from all points in the room.

While the Region is considering supervision, safety and child-friendly environments, officials are also considering consolidating services like a “hub model,” said Darlene Edgar.

In Fort Erie, for example, Ontario Works is combined with other services.

“It’s like making one stop, and I can do five things,” she said, about connecting services like health, speech providers and educators for children and youth. The Ontario Early Years Child and Family Centres’ report outlines topics such as integrating and transforming services, and new frameworks for funding, which will change the game in some areas. How this plays out for Pelham remains to be seen.

Once all the information is gathered, a team will put together a concept for the procurement process, which will have to be approved by the Committee of Health and Social Services, and Regional Council. Edgar expects a report on the procurement process to go to the committee in April, but noted there are often changes, additions and delays during this process.

Once the procurement is approved, the Region will announce it will be accepting submissions and bids from community providers throughout the Region. Advertisements will also be placed in various communities to ensure there are enough qualified applicants, she noted. The service provider has to be a “non-profit organization,” but no other criteria was offered at this time. While there is currently no definitive timeline on the project, Edgar hopes to have decisions on EarlyON providers determined by November.

“We are taking our time, and we want to make sure we get it right,” she said.

At this point, FACS is not stating whether they will bid to continue operating the EarlyON in Fenwick. Ann Godfrey, recently retired as Director of Development and Public Relations with FACS, stated there are 27 EarlyON centres in the Region, and many are operated through organizations like the YMCA and Port Cares. Currently, FACS operates an EarlyON through the Central United Church in Welland, and a centre in Grimsby. However, Godfrey noted the program’s rent and staffing costs continue to rise, “due to binding pay equity obligations and health and safety requirements.”

Adrian McKenzie, Senior Manager of the Family Counselling Centre, stated that funding for EarlyON programming has remained frozen since 2002.

“As a publicly funded organization, FACS recognizes our obligation to both quality service and fiscal responsibility—whether providing critical child protection services or valuable community programming such as our EarlyON programs,” said McKenzie. “In accordance with our fiscal obligation, we are not permitted to redirect child welfare dollars to community programming, or to incur a deficit budget.”

However, FACS has already incurred debt. According to its 2017-2018 Financial Report, FACS spent 7%, or $4,048,000, of its annual budget of $54,090,000, on community programs, which includes EarlyON. Expenditures exceeded revenue, and community programming ran a deficit of $247,000 during this time period.

At the focus session, McKenzie wouldn’t get into specifics about the deficit, but said FACS receives “sector funding,” which covered Welland’s programming, and then FACS decided to include Fenwick.

When asked if any additional funding could be obtained for the Fenwick site through Trillium Ontario or another funder, McKenzie was contemplative.

“There are different models, and I can look at what we’re allowed to do.”

However, at this point, he said he couldn’t consider any options until he reviewed the requirements of the procurement agreement. McKenzie said the Region has allocated funding to FACS for EarlyON until the procurement process. At that time, McKenzie said they “will review the requirements to determine future actions.”

Church trustee Philip Johnson confirmed that the $8,000 annual rent they receive from FACS hasn’t changed in 15 years, and believes if FACS discontinues the EarlyON program in Fenwick, the church wouldn’t bid to replace it, due to being unable to meet staffing requirements. He mentioned there is children’s programming at the Fonthill Pre-School Montessori site and Glynn A. Green school, which might be plausible alternatives, although the sense of community would not be the same, he noted.

Johnson chooses to remain positive that the EarlyOn will continue there, and said he would even like to see its programming extended to include Saturday mornings, as it is in other bigger cities.

“We haven’t discussed that yet,” he added, and believes that time slot would be well utilized, especially for mothers who work throughout the week.

“The only time rural communities get anywhere is when groups get together and fight for it. From the politicians’ point of view, if you don’t make a fuss, then there is no real need for it.”

When told that the Region wouldn’t be making any decisions until fall, Jennifer Ziraldo said she fears when EarlyON closes at the end of June for the summer, it will remain closed, and the powers that be may try to make the issue, “silently go away.”


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