A new preschool in Chetwynd is looking for local Elders and community members to mentor their children through the Aboriginal Head Start program.
The initiative provides comprehensive experiences for First Nations, Metis and Inuit children up to six years old and their families—with primary emphasis on preschoolers (or three- to five-year-olds). It aims to support Indigenous children's spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and physical development.
The Tansi friendship centre is hosting the Head Start program and is inviting Elders, knowledge keepers, and language speakers in the Chetwynd area to come and share with the children.
According to the centre, on one outing, an Elder took the kids to pick rose petals to make a drink; on another, they picked dandelions and learned how to make tea from them and its other traditional uses.
The centre started offering the program after a call they received in October from the Aboriginal Head Start Initiative to invite them to apply for the expansion of the Head Start program for urban childcare services.
"We jumped at the opportunity as it has always been our vision to have a no fee, fully funded culturally based Head Start program," says Leatha Dowd, the program coordinator.
The centre is one of six locations in the province to receive funding for the program.
To be eligible for the program, Aboriginal involvement must be in the planning, design, operation and evaluation. The program must also be a non-profit and involve parents and primary caregivers.
Off-reserve Aboriginal families who live in urban areas often do not have the same opportunities to learn about their culture or access traditional spaces. This causes a disconnect.
The program serves children who live off-reserve but identify as First Nations, Metis or Inuit from ages three to five years old for five days a week.
Incorporating the Cree language into the everyday curriculum and sharing traditional foods is one way that the Tansi Head Start program differs from others.
The children have tried rabbit stew, buffalo burgers, and dry meat. The program provides one healthy meal and two snacks per day.
"It's wonderful to see the kids being immersed in their culture and language. They're really thriving," said Dowd.
"One of the best parts is they go home and share what they've learned with their parents. The sense of pride they have in knowing their culture and where they come from instills them with confidence that helps them be more successful in kindergarten."
The Aboriginal Head Start program aims to strengthen and prepare children with the necessary school readiness skills, cultural foundation, and community support to enter kindergarten with confidence.
The funding for the program allowed the centre to buy new equipment and employ three full-time early childcare educators, a part-time cook, and a part-time coordinator for the program.
The centre, located next to the Kici-Awasimsak Child Development Centre, has been open since 2002 and is also a no-fee preschool that runs twice a week.
Both centres have a capacity of 15 children but are completely separated. Dowd manages both centres and says they're currently at capacity, but those looking to access the centre can be added to a waiting list.
The Tansi Head Start program opened in April 2022 and had a Grand Opening blessing ceremony on June 13th, 2022.
Local Elders were invited to come and drum, the new centre was smudged, and the workers were draped in blankets to protect and honour them for their work.
The Aboriginal Head Start program is based upon six Guiding Principles: Culture and Language, Education and School Readiness, Health Promotion, Nutrition, Parent/Family Involvement, and Social Support for Parents.
Tansi Friendship Center provides free health and social programs to meet the needs of Native and non-Native people.
Anyone looking to participate in the program or learn more can contact Leatha Dowd at 250-788-2823.
Kirsta Lindstrom, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Energeticcity.ca