Maybe you wish your child’s school was more green, complete with those litterless lunch or food-growing programs. Or maybe you long for a better public library stocked with computer equipment, puzzles and puppets. Or you’ve hoped that the city would install some speed bumps on your family-friendly street to put the brakes on aspiring Paul Tracys. Parenthood can spark a passionate fuse to make the world a better place for our children. Meet four parents who proved what a little motivation can do.
Joe Doiron and Eric Parsons
In 2005, the 57-year-old Michael Wallace Elementary School in Dartmouth, NS, was suffering from a bit of ageism: While there were no plans to shut down the school, the Halifax Regional School Board would not be investing in a desperately needed new playground. Instead, Michael Wallace’s 220 students would be stuck playing on the school’s worn and dated play structure.
That didn’t sit well with the Home and School Association, and particularly two of its members, Joe Doiron and Eric Parsons, who each had two kids at the school. “The closest playground was a 12-minute drive away from the school—not within walking distance,” says Doiron.
So the playground committee was struck with Doiron and Parsons heading it up and armed with a three-phase, two-year timeline. And with the project came an intimidating $120,000 price tag. “We knew the school board didn’t have the means to fund a new playground, so a group of parents and school staff stepped up to the plate,” says Doiron, a senior policy advisor with the Public Health Agency of Canada. And since the land was owned by the Halifax Regional Municipality, the committee reframed the playground as a community rather than a school-only initiative, opening doors to funding from various levels of government as well as private and corporate donors.
For the two dads and their committee, the project meant days, nights and weekends of selecting equipment, surveying users for ideas, overseeing construction and hosting numerous fundraisers, including a 50/50 draw that collected $550 and a wine-tasting event that netted $2,900.
Unforeseen challenges included maintaining enthusiasm for the project from committee members after the first phase, and even vandalism, such as the night when the new slide was set on fire.
But today, four years later—two years longer than originally anticipated—the playground is complete with multiple climbers, overhead ladders and a triple slide. (Alas, not the mini-golf course or trampoline the students had first dreamed of.)
It’s easy to see why the dads got involved—their children would directly benefit from their efforts. But Doiron also saw it as one of those teachable moments parents so often hear about. “I thought my kids, Jake (now 14) and Hannah (now 12), would see leadership and modelling—one of the greatest things you can do as a parent is model the best behaviour you can muster,” says Doiron, whose daughter made a point to regularly tell her friends on the playground that her dad had built it.
Parsons, a manager with Public Works and Government Services Canada, also saw it as a community legacy for him and his family, including daughters Jessica, 14, and 11-year-old Emma. “We’ll keep a close watch on it to make sure it stays a part of our community.”
Since her son, Matthew, was diagnosed at 18 months with autism, Marie-Claude Osterrath of Calgary had focused on an intricate weave of therapies to help him connect with the world. That included applied behaviour analysis (ABA), speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, craniosacral therapy and more.
But it wasn’t until Matthew started preschool that Osterrath understood she was only dealing with part of the picture. “We realized that to ensure Matthew’s happiness, we had to develop an acceptance and understanding from people in his life,” she says. “Without the proper information, Matthew’s peers didn’t know how to respond to him and any attempts at making friends eventually fizzled.”
So in one of her first efforts to educate others about autism, Osterrath sent a letter to Matthew’s then-preschool classmates on Valentine’s Day, sort of “explaining” Matthew. The one-page letter, complete with colourful hearts and his picture, defined autism and gave concrete examples of how Matthew does things differently. “After that, people were way more welcoming and he was invited to birthday parties,” she says. That sparked her need to educate others about autism. A year later, she attended a conference on autism and learned of the Friend 2 Friend program, which was started by Heather McCracken, a Vancouver mom of three children, one with autism. The program, which involves a puppet presentation and a simulation game, demystifies autism for children. Osterrath took a four-day training program to learn how to conduct Friend 2 Friend and now, four years later, has done the presentations to hundreds of schoolchildren.
While Osterrath often sees kids reach that aha! moment as to what autism is, it can still stir up lump-in-the-throat moments. She recalls the time a little girl came up to her after a show to tell her about her autistic younger brother, only to find out later from the girl’s teacher that, until then, she had never, ever talked about her brother. It’s moments like those that Osterrath cherishes and knows she’s done her job of teaching others about autism, which ultimately helps make it a more understanding world for Matthew and other autistic children.
And she continues to teach. She hosts playgroups to give Matthew, now nine, the opportunity to socialize, as well as, again, help kids understand autism. (Included in the group is Meghan, Matthew’s seven-year-old sister.) Osterrath has also organized a T-ball game including her son and other children with autism and the local T-ball team.
Today, Osterrath sees the positive effect her efforts have had on Matthew. “People are accepting Matthew and I think he really feels that—he can’t verbally communicate that, but it comes out in other ways. He’s more relaxed, he sings, he smiles when anybody makes any kind of initiation with him,” she says. “He’s just a happier kid.”
Prostitutes on her corner. A chain-link fence between the elementary school and a motel littered with condoms and drug paraphernalia. Suspicious-looking vehicles hanging out in the alleyways. This was certainly not the area Diane Gillis had known as a child when her father owned a drugstore in this part of the Royal Oak area of Burnaby, BC.
Gillis moved back in 1983, when it was a relatively peaceful place, especially on her cul-de-sac, where she raised her three children. “But about five years ago, I started noticing significant changes—such as the obvious presence of sex trade workers here,” says Gillis, a nurse. “Girls had customers come down to our street to pick them up, or drop them off and speed away.”
Gillis’s children were teenagers at the time and that worried her even more. “I was concerned about the environment our family was growing in and the environment of the children living in this immediate area,” she says. She even mulled over moving away, but stayed because she loved the community and wanted to work to improve it.
She started visiting with local businesses, asking if they had seen anything similar. It turned out she wasn’t imagining things—most members of the community she talked to agreed, some saying the area was spiralling downward and that they were planning on leaving. So Gillis created the Kingsway Imperial Neighbourhood Association (KINA), a community citizens’ group that works with various levels of government and the local RCMP detachment to reduce crime and build the community.
In its five years, KINA has worked on a number of community-building efforts—families pitching in for biannual cleanups, graffiti paint-outs, barbecues and more. But why grill burgers and paint faces when they could be out bearing placards to drive sex trade workers away, as some communities have done? “We wanted to build the identity of the neighbourhood with people’s involvement,” says Gillis.
She adds that she hears positive neighbourhood chatter again, such as that from fellow resident Sharie Arrotta, a mom with a 10-year-old son and a daughter, 14. Arrotta recalls walking her five-year-old daughter to kindergarten with her son in the stroller, and wondering if her children would ever even walk to school alone when they were older. “When you have prostitutes on the corner and a motel with needles scattered, you just feel like you can’t do that,” says Arrotta. “But now it feels safer because we’re getting to know our neighbours through the cleanups and people chatting.”
To Gillis, that’s more than welcome news. “Our community had developed quite a reputation—there was even a website pointing to the fact that you could find a sex trade worker here. There was a sense of hopelessness with some residents and businesses moving away,” she says. “When we hear people say, ‘Things are so much better than a few years ago,’ we know we are making a positive difference.”