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‘Best Start’ moves into next phase

 Ontario’s “Best Start” program, whose aim is to support children and families in the early years of development from birth to Grade 1, is moving into the second phase here in Rainy River District.    “Phase one was the expansion of child care within the district,” noted Kim Gardiman, children’s services manager for the Rainy River District Social Services Board.    Back in 2005, local service providers and partners in the program formed the “Best Start” network, and included district school boards, the Northwestern Health Unit, Family and Children’s Services, local First Nations service providers, child care providers, and the DSSAB, among others.    Some schools, such as St. Joseph’s in Dryden, chose to expand to house a day care within them.    “Phase two now works towards the development of hubs and service integration for families,” Gardiman noted.    The Rainy River District “Best Start” network 2007/08 community plan builds on the first phase, and “sees us moving further along the continuum of service integration for families,” she added.    These hubs are meant to act as a one-stop shop for a child’s developmental needs, and will provide screening, assessment, and treatment for speech and language disorders, in addition to child care and parenting programs.    Early detection means children can be treated earlier—and can begin school “ready to succeed.”    “At this point, we’re looking at the provision of hub services and locations that are convenient and accessible for families,” Gardiman explained.    “Many of our Ontario Early Years Centres have been identified as ideal locations,” she added.    There are five OEYCs in the district—Fort Frances, Emo, Stratton, Rainy River, and Atikokan.    The network’s plan has been submitted to the Ministry of Child and Youth Services.    “It’s a good plan that is really working towards service integration so families can have access to services right from screening and assessment, nutrition, child care, parenting resources, a variety of programs and services, and supports for them in locations that are convenient for them,” Gardiman explained.    The “Best Start” program allows these centres to expand and enhance existing programing.    For example, FACS already offers some programs at the OEYCs.    “It’s really expanding these partnerships,” Gardiman said. “We’re really trying to streamline it for families.”    The network also has identified the need for an aboriginal hub to serve local Métis and First Nation families. The United Native Friendship Centre here has been identified as a hub location.    In addition to setting up their own hub, the UNFC, along with other aboriginal partners like Sunset Country Métis, Weechi-It-Te-Win Family Services, and Aboriginal Healthy Babies Healthy Children, will lend their expertise to the planning of all the district hubs.    “They’ll also provide the expertise for the rest of the district hubs because all of us have aboriginal children in our communities that might access our services,” Gardiman noted.    “All of them will serve aboriginal children.    “We’ll use their expertise so they can say, ‘These are the kinds of services and supports that you need to ensure you meet the needs of aboriginal children and their families,’” she said.    The next step will be to set up community hub planning committees, including for the aboriginal one.    The network also is looking into the possibility of doing outreach work in communities that do not have an OEYC.    “Transportation is one of our biggest barriers,” Gardiman noted. “It’s something the network is looking at right now.”    She stressed this is a long-term vision—and that it will take time to fully implement.    In the meantime, the network is planning a celebration in August for teachers and Early Childhood Education professionals.    “It’s a celebration of the importance of teachers and ECEs, and their value in early learning and educating young children,” she said.    “Initially, it’s to bring the people together so they know who they are and understand each others’ roles.    “It’s really important to enhance kindergarten and ECE relationships,” she remarked.(Fort Frances Times)

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