Another angle on sustainability

Charles G. Fraser

Mary Gordon explained her view of sustainability on our way to the parent-child drop-in centre at Charles G. Fraser elementary school near Bathurst St. and St. Clair Ave. in Toronto. She is administrator of parenting programs for the City of Toronto Board of Education.

Sustainability involves more than accommodating economic decisions to environmental needs, she said. It also involves strengthening communities. Without strong communities, she added, all else is in jeopardy.

The centre is in the heart of one of the city’s immigrant populations. Its primary purpose is to ensure that preschool children develop skills, especially a command of English, that will give them a more equal chance to learn once they enter kindergarten and grade one.

In the process, it helps build a stronger community outside the school by increasing the skills, confidence and self-esteem of parents and grandparents.

The day I visited, the centre was bustling. Mothers were reading stories to their children; grandmothers were doing handwork; a group of children was making trees out of discarded cardboard cones with the help of mothers and a couple of fathers; over at the sandbox, children and mothers spooned sand; a couple of children were playing with toys; one was reading. Vivid reds, yellows and blues spread cheerfulness.There was a slide,  a toy library, shelves of books, a ride-in plastic truck, teddy bears and a clothesline stretched across the room hanging with children’s paintings.

In a  corner, a woman, cradling a four-month old baby in her lap, moved her index finger back and forth while the baby reached for it, gurgling and grinning and kicking his feet. She was showing his mother how a baby develops hand-eye coordination.

On any one day about 30 adults and 40 to 50 children attend. There are 59 adults who come regularly. The children are mostly Portuguese with a sprinkling of Chinese, Spanish and Vietnamese.

« You have to understand that the mothers are often illiterate in their own language, can’t speak English, and usually are isolated in their own homes,’’ says Ms. Gordon. « And although the children are always well dressed and well fed and well cared for, they are often very limited in the play experience they need in order to develop intellectually.’’ So the centre helps adults understand how children learn.

One of the first things parents and grandparents are encouraged to do is read to the children,  first in their native language, then in English. The spinoff benefit is that as the children learn to read, so do they. And as parenting skills are learned, so are social skills.

« The program breaks down the isolation. It lets the grannies and the mothers  connect with other people in the community,’’ says Ms. Gordon with the barest trace of a Newfoundland accent that lingers after 27 years away from St. John’s.

« One of the first questions we ask is, `Who do you phone if the child is sick?’ If they don’t have a car or a doctor, we know we have our work cut out for us. Maybe we can tell them, `Mrs. Madeira across the street, her husband has a taxi. Perhaps he can help.’ We find that as their isolation decreases, as their sphere of influence increases, their self-esteem rises.
« Many of the women had never been to a dentist, had never asked what could be done about their arthritis, knew absolutely nothing about menopause, had never been to a beauty parlour, knew nothing about preventive health.’’

As they read to children, parents and grandparents developed a thirst for learning. Soon they began attending an English as Second Language class in the school. And then they formed the first home and school association that the school had ever had.

Now they have a  voice in running the school. In their communities they have networks and a burgeoning understanding of how Canadian society works.  Pamphlets on the bulletin board document their journey toward awareness. Their titles read: Safety, Wife Assault, Health, Toilet Learning, Family Literacy, Sleep, Stages of Scribble.

« People served by these centres never had the opportunity to contribute to society before,’’ says Mary Gordon. « Now they do.’’

The city has 34 centres. They make Toronto stronger.

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