It's Monday, so Lavita Tait packs up 23 activity bags to deliver to families of 3- and 4-year-olds in Laxgalts'ap, one of four Nisga'a villages in the Nass Valley. Each one has the name of a child on it. When Lavita gets to a home, she hangs the bag on the door knob and gives a knock. Inside are items that kids and parents can use to continue the learning they gain at Head Start. When the bags show up, so do smiles and excited chatter.
The weekly activity bags are based on a theme, the initial one being on Social and Emotional Wellness, which included COVID-19 resources. What's inside? Nisga'a songs, hands-on activities (a Kindness Calendar, a Feelings Bingo game), a feelings chart, and a book. There is also a folder (customized by the kids) with a 'cheat sheet' for parents on the importance of SE wellness and how to support their children as well as a mini feedback sheet. Anything with a pink dot on it has to be returned and is picked up on Fridays.
Liza Haldane, Program Administrator, says the program is evolving based on the feedback. “Our mini survey has four questions: Did you have fun with the resources? Was it useful? What is one thing I learned and will try with my child and/or family? And suggestions and ideas help us plan future weeks."
“We have a weekly prize draw from all the surveys. Our first family won a yoghurt parfait package with a board game. Her mom sent me a picture and said her daughter exclaimed: Taste just like daycare!"
Switching to an outreach program is a lot of work. Wanda Stevens has been a champion advocate with management, especially when the idea of a “Playground by Appointment" was pitched.
“High risk kids are already isolated," said Haldane, “and COVID-19 adds another level." Being physical and outdoors exploring is a huge part of brain development for all children, and was a big reason the team pushed to find a way for families with youngsters to access the playground. Safety and hygiene have been top priorities to minimize risk of infection. Some parents supported the idea and others didn't, but all were respectful, even if opposed.
The program has been well thought through. Parents phone to set up a ½-hour playground appointment. There are guidelines and restrictions, including sanitizing hands when arriving and leaving, and a reminder to use the bathroom before coming, as the building is closed to the public. Everyone has to wear gloves (even if they are winter ones). One of the team meets the family and answers questions, if they have any, then they are on their own to enjoy family time on the swings or other equipment. Staff remind everyone when there are 5 minutes left. Once they are gone, a half-hour is devoted to disinfecting all the surfaces, before the next family arrives.
Has it been worthwhile? If you see the absolute joy of a 3-year-old with a wide grin and happy cries that are contagious, you know it is. For families in Laxgalts'ap, Head Start is going strong.
The staff were quick to adapt their work plans for a private Facebook platform. They contacted parents directly, through their newsletter and via social media, which all their families have access to. Now, parents can tune in when it fits their schedule, see an activity demo'd, and can even pause or replay it.
“Families love it!" said Pansy Wright-Simms, Gitanmaax Education Coordinator. “Especially those looking for something to do." Activities are infused with culture and language. Instructions are given in English, then in Gitxsan so parents and kids get to hear and practice language skills along with learning about the seasons, colours, flowers and other theme-based subjects. Every day kids sing the Good Morning Song in their language. May's theme is Moms and Matriarchs, so they will be learning the Women's Warrior Song, and activities will relate to planting and seeding.
Everyone's spirits are lifted by the kids, so when they are at home, they are missed, especially by two fluent speaking Elders who regularly teach the children. Because of COVID-19 they are all staying home and staying safe.
Can parents share back? You bet! They record videos of their little ones and drop them in to Facebook. Teachers and staff get to see the kids and reach out regularly to see how folks are doing.
Things are different in Gitanmaax these days. But every evening at 7PM you can hear the drumming and songs that give thanks for all the goodness and for the workers who are helping us all to get through this tough time. And many, many thanks go out to those who are dedicated to making the lives of our children better. Hamiyaa!