Something New that Never Gets Old

Success in politics, as in life, may be best measured by what we leave behind. I reflected on that this morning at the opening of the Child and Family Centre that will be serving families in Willowdale from new space in the Sheppard Centre for at least the next 99 years.

That's how long the City will own the Yonge & Sheppard space to support some truly important people: those aged birth to 6 years. Our future.

It will be operated on the City's behalf six days a week by Luminous Community Services, offering a variety of programs to nurture children's early development, focusing on the years we know are most critical. Services will be both virtual and in-person, with a team of early childhood experts providing both one-on-one and group support for children and their parents/caregivers.

Activities will promote healthy child development and build parenting capacity. There will also be opportunities through less formal programs for parents and children to simply enjoy each other's company and learn from one another. It becomes part of a network of EarlyON centres, with operating funds from both the City and Province.

Registrations open November 8 for programs that begin November 22. You can find out more on the Luminous Facebook Page or by subscribing to their newsletter.

A space like this is something I dreamed about for decades, waiting for the opportunity to set it in motion. That came seven years ago when RioCan, owner of the Sheppard Centre, agreed to work with me to create it. Funding for both the Family Centre and a companion city-owned non-profit child care centre in the same building, came from funds provided by the developer.

Sadly, the opportunity for future projects of this type was greatly diminished when the current provincial government recently slashed the amount developers contribute to community facilities, while entirely removing child care from development charges. The shortage of child care spaces and the lack of money for the city to build it will become a bigger problem in the near future as a proposed national program makes quality child care more affordable for all families.

Today's opening took me back almost 40 years to the first days of Hollywood All*Stars, North York's first school-based non-profit child care, at Hollywood School. How that started is a little-known story I'm happy to tell.

In 1982, when my first child was still eight years away, I was elected to the North York Board of Education. Child care wasn't something I had thought much about. But the day after the election, I got a call from a young mother whose husband had died while she was pregnant. She wanted to know if there could be child care in her local school, so that her son could move easily from one part of his day to another while she was at work.

"Let's do it," I said, too green to know how many policies would need to change. Luckily, when the timing for something is right, doors have a way of opening.

First I asked the school principal to find me an empty classroom. "If it helps the community I'm glad to do it," he answered, a level of informal co-operation not likely to happen today.

Next, with considerable help from two school board staff, Ted Gould and Karen Liberman, I set about forming a board of directors by dropping flyers door to door and inviting anyone needing child care to a meeting. A crowd of parents showed up, most of whom weren't sending their kids to local schools.

Finally, I told Education Director Karl Kinzinger what I was sneaking into the school.

"I know," he said, explaining that he had been secretly observing my progress and that he had attended one of Toronto's first such programs as an infant. "We'll call it a pilot project."

The next year, when parents at neighbouring Finch and McKee schools wanted one, we set up McKee McKids and Finch Flyers. Then, after other trustees demanded one too, Karl put Ted and Karen in charge of setting them up. By this time I had a key political ally in Maria Rizzo, another rookie trustee at the time, who still breaks new ground as a member of the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

I'm skipping a lot of details about the boardroom battles Maria and I had to win. That part was gut wrenching but exhilarating, the type of excitement that comes when a group of citizens work with their elected representative to make good things happen for the community.

And there's something about building support for families that will never grow old.

This week's song reminds us how quickly childhood passes, but that it all comes around again with each new generation.

- John