Suzanne Flanagan describes a thorough and multi-faceted program aimed at prevention and strength-building
Better Beginnings is the first long-term prevention policy research demonstration project of its kind in Canada. The focus is on children up to the age of eight years, living in 12 socioeconomically disadvantaged communities in Ontario. These communities are being funded to provide services tailored to local circumstances for four years. The project’s three main goals are to:
prevent problems (social, emotional, behavioural, physical, cognitive) from happening in children
promote healthy growth and development in children (social, emotional, behavioural, physical and cognitive)
strengthen the community in which these children live.
The major responsibilities of the 12 Better Beginnings, Better Futures communities involve developing and implementing high quality prevention and promotion programs for young children and their families. These programs are to be characterized by meaningful, significant involvement of community residents in all aspects of program development and implementation, as well as the integration of existing and new services for children and families.
The research component of the Better Beginnings projects addresses three general questions:
is the Better Beginnings model effective?
what structures and processes are associated with project results?
is the Better Beginnings model affordable?
The research includes a longitudinal study of children born in these communities in 1994, whose progress will be followed until they are in their mid-twenties. North Kingston contains approximately 5,600 families (22,000 people) and is characterized by high unemployment, low incomes and has the highest concentration of subsidized housing in the greater Kingston area. Kingston community residents and agencies first met in the fall of 1989 and they continued to meet over the next 12 months in order to prepare a funding proposal. Funding was announced for the Kingston site in January 1991 and the community and agency representatives continued to plan and develop the prevention programs for children in the birth to age four range. The project’s first staff person was hired in December 1991 and the remaining 19 staff positions were filled by the end of 1992. Programs were ready to begin by March 1993. The Better Beginnings Project in Kingston is not formally incorporated and the North Kingston Community Health Centre, which has been in existence since 1988, agreed to assume the financial liability and provide administrative support for the project.
Partnerships have developed with many social service, health and educational organizations and with community residents in order to collaboratively plan and implement these Better Beginnings programs. Hospitals, health units, school boards and social service organizations work collaboratively to provide the best service possible to families and children in the North Kingston area. Better Beginnings for Kingston Children has a 2:1 rule, which means that for every agency representative on the steering committee or any other committee, there must be two community representatives. This is to ensure that the effective community development process developed by the initial agency representatives and in keeping with the prevention model prescribed by the government is maintained throughout the life of the project. Community residents served by the project are continually involved in program development, project governance and program monitoring. A steering committee meets twice a month. There are committees for finance, hiring, program, prenatal and infant development, child care, family and community support, research, rules and agreements, special events, newsletter and physical space. At a staff and steering committee retreat in 1992, the Better Beginnings for Kingston Children structure was defined as a bicycle. The frame of the bike is the government, which provided the prevention model. The wheels are the agencies that keep the bike rolling; the handlebars are the community, which steers the bike; the seat is the staff, who keep the bike balanced; the pedals are the steering committee, giving the bike energy; and the mirror of the bike is the research reflecting our progress. In the initial planning stages of 1990, residents in the North Kingston community told proposal organizers what programs they needed in order to raise healthy kids and how they wanted the programs delivered. Community residents, our staff and staff of agencies working with families in the area developed the following programs to meet the families” requirements.
Family Visitor Program
We used the home visiting program developed by the Toronto Department of Public Health, entitled Parents Helping Parents and adapted it to meet the needs of our families. Women from the community with a Grade 12 education were hired and trained to provide: prenatal education; infant care support to new mothers; child development activity demonstrations for parents to do with their children to stimulate healthy growth and development; and support to the families in any way they may need it.
Family and parent-focused programs
These programs provide support to families who are raising children. They provide suggestions, answer questions and give parents an opportunity to voice their ideas and receive affirmation. There have also been many spinoffs from the family programs, including groups on women and stress, community kitchens, and women's therapy, to name a few.
A family begins at conception, when a woman and her partner decide to bring the baby to full term. Better Beginnings for Kingston Children has on staff a health educator who offers several prenatal classes to prepare expectant moms for healthy lifestyle choices, labour, delivery and life after the baby is born. The educator is a resource for the family visitors on staff who may be doing one-on-one prenatal education with a socially isolated mother who is not comfortable attending prenatal classes. We use the Special Delivery Club format developed by the North Kingston Community Health Centre and used by many prenatal programs across the country. The Special Delivery Club was developed for use with teenagers and we simply adapted the format to suit the needs of couples and older single mothers, too.
We provide all pregnant moms in our community with vitamins and breastfeeding support after the baby is born. For those who choose to bottle-feed their babies and occasionally have difficulty affording formula, we have emergency supplies. Parents can also come and browse or exchange something at the maternity and infant clothing exchange.
Infant, toddler and playgroups
These groups provide an opportunity for parents and children to meet and socialize with other parents and children. The groups are divided to meet the various developmental needs of the children. Crafts, songs, stories, a nutritious snack and occasional guest speakers fill the weekly two-hour time spot.
Nobody’s Perfect parenting programs
These parenting programs were developed by health units in the eastern provinces and have been a resounding success in North Kingston. Parents are more than willing to learn more about parenting their children in this easy and self-affirming format. Other groups that have grown from the first groups include the Nobody’s Perfect Grads and Nobody’s Perfect for Infants. Nobody’s Perfect is run every six weeks.
Toy libraries and story centres
Parents can borrow age-appropriate toys and story packs containing books, activities and tapes that encourage parents to read to their children at a young age. Community volunteers have also been trained to deliver the Reading and Parents Program, developed by the Read Write II Centre of Kingston Literacy.
This is a chance for single mothers to socialize over the dinner hour, once a month.
This very popular group meets weekly and is facilitated by two men “the executive director of the Kingston Preschool Centre and a community outreach worker from the North Kingston Community Council. This group gives dads an opportunity to talk about their concerns about parenting.
High quality child care is offered so parents can attend any of the programs, participate in meetings that guide the direction of the project, or take a break from their children. Children are cared for a maximum two and a half hours at a time. The child care providers are women and men hired from the North Kingston community, carefully trained and supervised by a Better Beginnings staff person. Other Child-Focused Programs The project provides assistance to enhance the quality of four day care centres, three nursery schools and one parent preschool program located in North Kingston. Over the past year, the Better Beginnings child care assistants have successfully worked on getting more parents involved in their child's education by using newsletters, parent meetings, craft day and fundraising activities.
In keeping with the goal of strengthening the community and maintaining the community development process, the community-focused programs include residents involved in the Low Income Needs Coalition, a group concerned with social assistance reform. There is also a group of local residents who write articles of interest to the North Kingston community for the local Neighbour to Neighbour newspaper. Community-wide special events are held during the holiday season, March break and summertime. These include strawberry and apple picking, picnics, a trip to the beach, sleigh rides and winter carnivals, craft and recreation activities during the schools break and visits to the local conservation area. Local residents also organize around safety issues, such as cross walks, crossing guards, stop signs and lights.
Better Beginnings, Better Futures is one of the best community development models to have been developed in Canada. All of the sites have demonstrated success in attracting socially isolated parents to their programs.
Suzanne Flanagan is the project coordinator of Better Beginnings for Kingston Children, mother of two boys, has a diploma in Community Development and has worked for the past 21 years for a variety of social service organizations at the local, provincial and national levels. Better Beginnings for Kingston Children can be reached at 1201 Division St., Unit B, Kingston, ON, K7K 6X4, phone (091613) 542-2835, fax (091613) 542-3861.