A year ago, the Ontario government announced a transformation of early-year services for children and families. While there were a number of reasons for the change, the primary aim was making parents more aware of the services they can access.
Introducing EarlyON Child and Family Centres.
Rolled out at the beginning of January, the provincial program, formerly known as Ontario Early Years Centre (OEYC), features a re-branded name, new programs and services, new hours of operation and more locations across Simcoe County.
“There used to be a lack of awareness of the services people had in the community for Early Years,” said Lora D’Ambrosio, Simcoe County early learning and child care services manager. “Also, when we think across the province, these programs for children and families had so many different names families weren’t always aware of what was available. The province wants to rebrand, so the family will now see if I go to an EarlyON program, someone there will help me. Even if the services aren’t available right on site, they have the potential to help refer families and support them with any resources they need.”
The EarlyON program helps promote the healthy development of children, prenatal through six, and provides parents and caregivers with support to ensure their child and family have the resources they need to raise healthy, thriving, resilient children. The drop-in centres provide a safe environment where children can experience a variety of learning activities and practice new-found skills. Essentially, it’s a one-stop shop for parents.
“One of our goals at the centres is that people feel a sense of belonging when they go there, because they have to be inclusive so the families feel comfortable going,” D’Ambrosio said. “Once they’re there, the staff will do its best to address any needs that come up.”
A very positive thing for Simcoe County, she says, is the strength they already had in the agencies and the programs that were being delivered through the OEYC.
“We have definitely built on strengths that existed in the community and that was an important piece for us, because we know that families were quite pleased with the previous programs that existed,” said D’Ambrosio. “But what we’re looking for is to enhance them further and to be able to offer more consistency county wide.”
What they elected to do was take a report to council and stay with the same four agencies in Simcoe County offering the services.
“What we did change though is using considerable data we received through our own research analysts and also from our school boards, community partners and the health unit,” D’Ambrosio said. “We collected data to help us determine where these centres, where these programs needed to be in Simcoe County.”
Changes were made so they could reach more of the community by developing two-day satellite programs, while also retaining the large centres across the county. The Simcoe County program now includes seven main sites and more than 20 satellite programs.
“We retained those (large centres) to make sure the programs are then enriched, but the locations remain the same for those sites,” D’Ambrosio said.
Another positive part of the transformation is they’re trying to offer services for families on weekends and evenings at the large sites.
“That was part of the guidelines of this transformation, that we had more supports available to families on a Saturday or a Sunday, or a evening of the week so that all families could have access to these centres,” she said. “Those would be the main sites. The satellite sites are still offered during the day. As we build on these services and locations with our community partners, then we’ll review that throughout the year.”
While they will work closely with their partners, the local centres will also continue to ensure, throughout the year, there’s opportunity for parents to provide feedback.
“There are still barriers for them to access these programs and how we can help resolve some of these barriers is very, very important to us,” D’Ambrosio said. “We’ll continue to survey the families, at minimum annually, to hear the needs in the community. We’ll continue to collect data to help inform us of diversity. Just different diverse population needs where we have families that might require more support if they’re living in some communities with lower incomes. We want to make sure we address the needs of families.”
They will also continue to work with local school boards in an effort to establish programs in schools. What they’ve learned from research is this helps families develop partnerships with the early years providers, as well as participate in their school community.
“Children will develop good relationships with their school community and the teachers that are in the school,” D’Ambrosio said. “They have a different comfort level of being there, so when they enter junior kindergarten they’re already familiar with the environment.”
D’Ambrosio said she’s very pleased with the transparent process that determines the funding allocated to each of the municipalities in the province. A total of $3.8 million was invested by the Ministry of Education, in general, for early learning and child care.
“We’re quite fortunate our area has been acknowledged for the significant growth in some of our communities and we will continue to see population growth for children (ages) zero to six,” she said. “We anticipate the envelope will be sustained or increased in future years because of that process the Ministry of Education has. We’re quite pleased with what we’ve been able to do with this envelope.”