After a decade of success that has meant that a third of all preschool children from Squamish to Pemberton have taken part in Early Child Development programs offered by Sea to Sky Community Services (SSCS), its programs are being squeezed so tightly from lack of funds that they are in danger of dying off altogether.
"When they are being chipped away the parents and their families are taking a loss. This education is crucial to the development of young brains," said Suzie Soman, the director of SSCS's Early Child Development Services.
These programs are especially needed because throughout the corridor the "vulnerability rate" of under-five-year-olds – defined as adverse impacts that effect language, emotional, communication, physical and social development – is above the provincial average, with 30 per cent of children at risk, according to the Early Development Instrument questionnaire administered in B.C. by the University of British Columbia. The EDI assesses how children in a particular region are doing and is used throughout Canada.
The fear of death by a thousand cuts comes because all previous sources, governmental and charity, are giving less or withdrawing altogether.
The United Way of the Lower Mainland, one the main funders of SSCS development classes and sessions for preschoolers through its Success By Six funding program, has cut from $100,000 to $50,000 the amount SSCS got in 2012, and may cut the rest entirely in 2013.
"United Way Success By Six funding is independent of the Ministry of Children and Family Development (their program is called Putting Children First), which have provided less and less over the years, but the United Way cuts also hit the same programs," Soman said.
She added that they have already been forced to "make adjustments to staffing" due to cuts to Putting Children First. With the withdrawal of money from the United Way, actual programming is impacted, including homegrown grassroots classes set up by parents in each community in the Sea to Sky corridor, such as Little Squids in Squamish.
"In Whistler as well, we had funding pulled from our parent-tot program because it was deemed that it was a resort town and the service wasn't necessary for young families. Meanwhile, I know that Whistler is full of young working families who don't make a lot of money," said Soman.
And full-time childcare is so expensive it is out of reach for many.
"We had an infant toddler centre and we ended up closing it in June 2010... and our families couldn't afford to pay $1,300 a month for childcare... that's a mortgage payment!" Soman said. At the same time, she added, birth stats show the numbers of preschoolers have doubled.
Today, this means families cannot be offered the infant-toddler care they need.
"It's the most expensive care to offer, the most expensive to give," Soman said.
"Yet my preschool program that I could only offer for a half day was full with a waiting list."
Putting Children First and Success By Six funds also once took care of the Mother Goose program throughout the region, a 10-week drop-in during which children and parents sang and socialized, learned stories, and developed language and cognitive skills.
"Because of the cuts the program was going to be axed until I managed to get a grant from Squamish Savings to allow it to continue for the next year," Soman said.
To save money, Soman has worked on her own without assistance, supporting 35 staff, 10 programs and many more actual gatherings and classes.
Her remaining staff is also at risk, as is their on-going training and conferences to improve teacher skills. Soman's SSCS colleague Chelsie Brubacher, manager of Early Childhood Development Services, said she almost left her work in 2005 because she was burnt out by the stresses.
"The reality in Early Childhood Education is that the burnout rate is about five years, and that is a real challenge for training and retaining staff," Brubacher said. New training brought in by these funded programs, called High Scope, changed that, and she has now been with SSCS for 12 years.
"It really inspired me. I was excited to get back in the classroom and I started to believe in what we were doing again."
For Julia Black, the SSCS's community development co-ordinator for early education, the issue is doing whatever is possible to support the youngest children's social and emotional development with the limited funds.
"The outcome of our program gives children more democratic life skills. It helps them express strong emotions without hurting people, solve problems and accept everyone's diversity. Thinking intelligently and ethically," she said.
Michael McKnight, president and CEO of United Way of the Lower Mainland, was able to speak about the pressures they face in their funding programs.
He said calling them funding cuts would be a misnomer.
"All the funding agreements we had were three-year agreements and at the end of that some of those agreements were renegotiated, and some were not renewed, and some were renegotiated for smaller amounts," McKnight said, blaming it on a "more difficult" fundraising environment.
"When those three-year agreements came to an end we did have to renegotiate, and we put higher priorities on some things and less on others. There is no doubt that there is less money from the United Way in early childhood development in the Sea to Sky Corridor, but it wasn't a cut to an existing agreement."
He agreed that the Early Childhood Development programming in the region has been a success, calling the Sea to Sky's Success By Six program a "great example of it."
Like Soman, McKnight referred to the period before the 2008 economic crash as a time when more money was available.
"The provincial government's commitment to Success by Six, and I can't speak to early childhood development overall because I don't know where they invest money, has been up and down over the last 10 years. In terms of us, it has been as high as $5 million a year, in other years it's closer to $3.5 million a year, but they've had a multi-million dollar financial commitment in Success by Six. We certainly hope that continues."
The problem, he said, is that funding agreements with the province are year to year, making planning difficult.
Lianne Van Raalte's daughters Anneke, now seven and in grade two, and Cailyn, now five and in kindergarten, took SSCS preschool from ages three to five, both half and full days. They were in the community service's High Scope program.
"They got a ton out of it. I can't say enough good things about the program. They just learnt so many life skills. There was a whole mix of different kinds of kids and personalities, it was a relatively structured environment but still very creative," Van Raalte said.
"Their entering school has just been so easy because of all the learning they did there and the socialization, too. The High Scope program, the teachers go through pretty extensive training.
"The staff are a real core, they've been there a long time, there's not much turnover, which says a lot about the program. They don't get paid much, it's a tough job for what they get paid, but they're phenomenal."
Van Raalte let out a gasp of frustration when she realized that the programs could lose all of their United Way funding.
"I was on the parents' committee, raising funds, and I went through them losing the daycare, which I think was horrendous. I didn't even know about them losing their funding now... Wow," she said.
"If they lose that funding, it's going to be horrible because Squamish, as a community, the region, is growing so much right now. All young families moving it, we have the youngest population in B.C."
She said the preschool program has grown from one class to five in three years.
"The demand is there. They've been waitlisting and I know that other programs in town have waitlists as well. For them to suddenly lose that many spots in a town where there are working parents the preschool is a form of childcare... it will be horrendous if it happens."
And poorer parents are even worse hit, Van Raalte thinks.
"Those programs are really the only reasonably affordable programs out there and if you are a low-income family, you are subsidized in those programs. If that's gone, that's it. As far as I know there is nothing else out there; you can do Waldorf, you can do Montessori, but they are very expensive. That will be a big impact."
Sea to Sky Community Services will continue to maintain its preschool programs, Soman said, but cuts will impact it severely.
"I believe fewer children will be reached."
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