The room that hosts the weekly Weekend Family Place program at United Way of the Lower Mainland supported Gordon Neighbourhood House comes alive every Saturday evening. Chris, single mother to 22-month-old twins Corwyn and Nathan, watches her boys race around during free playtime as they seek snacks, look for things to colour, and try and nab coveted toy cars.
It is an organized chaos, teeming with energy and the joyful squeals of children ages 0 to 6 years old.
Chris, Corwyn and Nathan have been participating in programs at the West End’s Gordon Neighbourhood House since the boys were five months old and have been attending Weekend Family Place since they were eight months old. “They have been coming here most of their lives,” Chris says proudly.
One of the things Chris likes most about the program is that it is family-based. “I really appreciate this because working during the week, I don’t get to do the other group things and see them socialize with other kids.”
Chris works full-time in a downtown Vancouver office, so the boys are looked after by a daytime caregiver. At the neighbourhood house the boys are able to interact with children their own age. They, along with their caregiver, attend Creative Playtime three times a week. Unlike Weekend Family Place, however, Creative Playtime has a drop-in fee of $1.50. Weekend Family Place is free with membership. “I’d be fine if there was a small fee but I know there are families for who that would be more of a hardship. Coming every week would be a bit much for them,” says Chris.
Weekend Family Place is truly a family affair. Chris is a single mother by choice, but feels it is very important that her sons grow up being exposed to other types of family arrangements too. “It is nice, actually, because it is one of the places where they get to go to where there are fathers. Their playgroups and other daytime events are typically caregivers and mothers. The ones that come here are typically more involved in their kids’ lives. And then there are a couple of same-sex parents too, which I think is just fabulous. They actually see families interacting. Not just walking down the street or on TV. I’m from Nova Scotia, so I don’t have family here.”
After playtime, there is a whirlwind of activity as kids and parents, including Corwyn and Nathan, tackle the room, leaving it tidy and ready for circle time and dinner in mere minutes.
Dinner is included in the program, and is always a healthy vegetarian meal prepared by volunteer UBC nutrition students, with some help from siblings, older than the 6-year-old cutoff. Older brother and sisters volunteer in the kitchen as well as expertly wrangle the younger children.
The recipes are multicultural. Chris appreciates this. It allows her family to try new things that she otherwise may not have cooked at home.
The Weekend Family Place is a community, and it is one that Chris, Nathan and Corwyn benefit from equally. Mothers and fathers exchange kids clothing and tips on parenting while the youngsters chatter and let off steam with their peers. “I love the socializing,” says Chris, adding that having dinner cooked for you is a bonus. “But if the food wasn’t here, we’d still come and hang out. It’s the whole atmosphere. I look forward to coming here every week. I really like it. It’s probably one of the only places I interact regularly with other parents.
“The boys look forward to going. They don’t like leaving and we’re usually one of the last families to leave.” The boys also acquire skills, such as table manners and snippets of the many languages they are exposed to in this very multicultural setting. “They seem to pick some things up from the older kids. At home, it’s just us, but when they come here they see what other kids do. They pick up things that I may not have thought to show them.” Corwyn and Nathan also learn responsibility. When dinner is over, they know it’s time to help put away the smaller chairs. In fact, this is one of their favourite activities.
We all want children to be their best.
Approximately 30 per cent of the region’s six year olds are not developmentally ready to learn by the time they enter school. It takes a community to raise a child, and programs like Weekend Family Place help achieve just that. Your donation to United Way helps families with young children, like Chris, Corwyn and Nathan, succeed.