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Surrey’s inner-city families worried about possible StrongStart closure

New immigrant, lower-income families heavily rely on program for their children
StrongStart in Surrey is at-risk of closure, which will largely affect new immigrant and low income families who are not able to afford daycare. (Contributed photo)

Surrey families that have lower incomes — many of them newcomers to Canada – are waiting to learn if they will have a “crucial” resource stripped from them, following news that the future of StrongStart is in question.

RELATED: Program for children 5 and younger at risk of closure in Surrey Schools

The educational program, available throughout the province, including Surrey, provides an opportunity for families to bring their children up to five years old to one of 25 schools in the city. The youngsters enjoy being with other kids, learning to speak English and playing, while the caregiver who accompanies them can access resources and learn about child development from staff members and also interact with other parents and guardians.

Amandeep Gill, a mother of two daughters in Surrey, has seen the benefit of StrongStart for both of her children. Closing its doors would be very detrimental to her three-year-old’s development, she said.

“When my daughter was two, she was having speech issues, she was very shy and wouldn’t talk to other kids, wouldn’t play with other kids. Then when we started taking her to StrongStart, she slowly started coming out and playing with other kids,” Gill told Peace Arch News about her first-born, who is now six.

Amandeep Gill with her two daughters, the eldest who attended StrongStart for a couple of years and benefited from it and her other three-year-old who is in the program now at Cedar Hills Elementary. Seeing the program continue is crucial for Gill’s family, she said. (Contributed photo)

“She really developed her social skills. I can see, now she’s in kindergarten, how helpful the StrongStart has been. It really gave her a strong start to kindergarten, so now my three-year-old, it’s helping her as well.”

The program has not seen increased funding since 2008, Surrey’s trustees said at the regular March 13 school board meeting. That means that it is no longer tenable to run as demand continues to rise, wages for staff increase and costs of materials are impacted by inflation.

Whether the program will close altogether or be significantly reduced is to be decided by the end of April, per the staff members’ union contract, said CUPE Local 728 president Tammy Murphy. School board and Education Ministry officials are scheduled to meet soon, with the decision expected to come afterwards.

StrongStart has been challenging to run for a couple of years now, Murphy said.

“It’s reduced significantly. It used to be a five-day program where people could drop in but now it’s actually scheduled and you can only go two days a week.”

For Gill, her eldest daughter was able to attend StrongStart for three days, but even having the two days for her youngest would be better than nothing, she stressed.

“In this economy, I cannot afford daycare, so StrongStart is the only option I have,” Gill said, noting that while both she and her husband work full-time jobs, they are still struggling financially.

“I have my in-laws in the house, so if I didn’t have StrongStart, my daughter would just stay home all day, would not learn how to socialize with other kids, and they speak Punjabi in the house, so she would not have command over the language if there’s no StrongStart. She would not have the social skills if there’s no StrongStart.”

When the mother heard over the radio, while driving her daughter to Cedar Hills Elementary, about the possibility of the service shutting down, she was shocked.

“I still couldn’t believe it so I went inside the school and asked the teacher and I could see the sadness in her face, her eyes were watery,” Gill said. “The teachers have that relationship with the kids. It’s the same teachers that were teaching my six-year-old that are with my three-year-old as well, so there’s that bond. If StrongStart stopped, the kids would miss that bond as well.

“I had to tell my daughter that she may not see her friends next semester. It’s very saddening for the kids.”

Gill is not the only first-generation immigrant whose family will be impacted. These families make up the “majority” of StrongStart’s demographic, Murphy said.

StrongStart in Surrey is at-risk of closure, which will largely affect new immigrant and low income families who are not able to afford daycare. (Contributed photo)

“People have talked about putting a fee on it but if you look at the demographic of where they are, they’re mostly in inner-city centres. They actually do testing and, through that testing, they figure out where to set up the StrongStart, so they specifically set them up in those areas,” Murphy said.

Paramjit Singh has been using the Surrey Schools program at Holly Elementary in Guildford ever since his three-year-old son was five months of age. His older son, who is now nearly seven, also benefited from it.

“My first child was born in India, he was two-and-a-half years old when we got here, and he got to develop his English skills and learn about the culture in StrongStart,” Singh said.

The father is the sole financial provider in his home while his wife is a full-time mother and takes their son to StrongStart two days a week. If the program ends, the options for the family of four are few, since things like daycare and extracurriculars are not affordable for them, he said.

“I’m worried and even some of my friends whose (children) go to other schools for StrongStart are worried too. It’s really going to impact my family and so many others,” Singh said.

StrongStart teachers’ roles are also on the line, with 35 staff members waiting to see if they will still have jobs.

“I went to the meeting where we found out and I’m going to be honest with you, there was about two minutes of them going, ‘Oh my God, we don’t have a job’ and it was, ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen to my family?’” Murphy said.

“This is their livelihood, they’re concerned about that, but they are really concerned about the families and the impact it’s going to have on those people.”

The union president added that children gain the benefit of having early intervention by the teachers if there are possible signs of learning or developmental disabilities, saving families from being caught up in the delays that come with testing school-aged children.

“The delays are huge, you could wait years to get into Sunny Hill Health Centre.”

If funding does not increase and Surrey school board decides to keep running the service, Murphy said the number of sites offering StrongStart would decrease by at least 60 per cent – from 25 to a maximum of 10, but possibly only six.

“That’s going to leave a lot of areas struggling and it’s going to be a huge detriment to the kids,” she said.

Sobia Moman

About the Author: Sobia Moman

Sobia Moman is a news and features reporter with the Peace Arch News.
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