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Little Steps Head Start has made giant strides

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Little Steps Head Start in Dauphin marks a remarkable 22 years in operation in the community this year.
Program co-ordinator Candace Demeria, explained the program is funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada and sponsored by the Dauphin Friendship Centre (DFC).
“It actually started out as a pilot project out of Ottawa. So there was a request for proposals to create the Head Start program within our community with a sponsoring agency,” she said, noting as the sponsoring agency, DFC supplies space and financial management for the program.
Dauphin applied when the call went out, Demeria said, with the assistance of its first co-ordinator, Suzy Komishin.
Over the years, she estimated, more than 380 children have gone through the program.
“We’ve been graduating 20 children every year up until 2009, when we dropped down to 16 children, just because Head Start hasn’t received any additional funding,” Demeria said.
“To maintain the level of care and rising costs, we had to drop one of the staff members off the floor which, in turn, meant a reduction of children attending.”
Head Start is a licensed child care program, she said, for families of three-and-four-year-old children who are potty trained.
“What we do here is, we provide a licensed child care facility based on a nursery school model. So we don’t actually provide napping or other things that the daycares would, we are more of a preschool model,” Demeria added.
The program for three-year-old children is in the morning. Little Steps offers transportation, she said, picking children up from their homes and providing programming, then the same thing happens for four-year-olds in the afternoon.
The children are served a snack in compliance with daycare standards and Canada Food Guide, staff do activities, education and cultural programming with the children, Demeria said, and then drive them home.
Little Steps Head Start program runs Monday to Thursday and Friday is used for planning.
The mandated component areas of the program, she noted, are culture and language, safety, health, nutrition, education and parental involvement.
“We actually got extra funding, so we do have an extra inclusion support staff on until March 2020, when her funding will be done. But regularly I have myself as the program co-ordinator and then there’s a family support worker and we have three ECE (Early Childhood Educator) IIs on the floor working with the children,” Demeria said, noting there is also a cook on staff.
Family inclusion is something that separates Head Start from a typical preschool, she added, because families are encouraged to attend with their children.
Little Steps offers separate programming with a family support worker, for families to attend either during the day, or in the evening.
The Indigenous culture portion of Head Start’s programming is strong in the centre, Demeria noted.
“We do the weekly smudging with the children. We do drumming with the children and we do introductions in the Ojibwa language. We also do counting in Ojibwa,” she explained.
“So it’s very much a holistic environment in the cultural sense where it’s blended into the program and it’s not really like it’s forced on anybody. It’s a part of how things run.”
After 22 years, the Head Start program in Dauphin has graduated almost a generation of children. It also runs the provincial Seeds of Empathy program and currently, Demeria said, graduates of the Head Start program are participating with their babies.
“So we are having graduates come back and be involved in the program now. This is like one big family,” she added.
Little Steps has several strong partnerships within the community, Demeria noted, serving as a practicum site for many programs at Parkland Campus of Assiniboine Community College, as well as a volunteer credit site for the Dauphin Regional Comprehensive Secondary School.
For the first time ever, she said, Little Steps received provincial funding through an early learning and child care operating grant.
“We had never before received any money from the province, as we were under an exemption, because we are funded by the federal government. So that was a huge step for us this past year. It had to do a lot with the bilateral agreement on the early learning and childcare that was announced in February,” Demeria explained.
As she contemplates Little Steps’ 22 years in the community, Demeria noted there is a lot to be proud of.
“It’s such a long running program and our staff are passionate about what they do. We haven’t had a staff change over here since the fall of 2015,” she added.
With funding for capital asset enhancements, Little Steps plans to erect a teepee in its playground to add to its cultural setting and provide a space for teaching to take place.
Without an increase in federal funding, Demeria said, there is no way to expand the number of children that participate in Little Steps, adding with the number of children on the wait list, Dauphin could operate an entire second Head Start program.
Demeria understands the value of the program, as she put all her children through Little Steps.
“And being a former parent and starting out that way and then working my way into the system and through the jobs here, I know what Head Start does for families,” she said.
“It empowers families to be able to have self-esteem and be able to go out into the community with the feeling of their cultural identity being sound. And I find that, even for myself, I wasn’t much into my culture before I came into the program and it really helped me discover my identity through my culture by being involved with the program, through the practices of introducing the medicines and just the general teachings that the families experience while they’re here through the base of the culture.”
Demeria has been a Head Start staff member since 2007, when she began working with the children for eight years, then taking the co-ordinator position four years ago.

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M. A. Nyquist
REPORTER
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