Morgan Stevenson and her husband Tyler were as prepared as anyone could be when their first-born child, Chase, arrived six weeks early and with a cleft palate. But the challenges piled up fast.
The baby’s cleft palate made nursing impossible, so feeding was an immediate challenge. The Salmon Arm family had to head to B.C. Children’s Hospital in Vancouver to prepare for corrective surgery. His premature birth brought its own array of risks.
“We were lucky,” says Morgan. “We were referred to the infant development team.”
Infant development is just one of the services available at the Shuswap Children’s Association in Salmon Arm, a family-based non-profit with a special focus on children with special needs.
Chase’s early arrival left him with a number of challenges. Premature babies often need extra help to reach developmental milestones such as sitting up, crawling, or developing motor skills.
The centre’s infant development program works with children from birth to age three. Consultant Penny Ogasawara made monthly visits to the family’s home to work with Chase and his parents. She assessed Chase’s needs and put together a program to support him in his development.
And she coached the family in what they could do to give Chase the best start. “It was wonderful,” Morgan says, “because she could pick up on the subtleties of what he was doing.”
Despite physical challenges due to his early birth, Chase hit his development milestones on time.
The first year after his birth - which included surgeries for Chase’s cleft palate - was “a blur,” Morgan recalls. But Penny’s monthly visits and instruction were invaluable. Penny brought games, aids, and ideas for exercises.
“She would give me ideas about what I should do with him, how to hold him and activities,” Morgan says. “Most babies might have been able to do things on their own, but others need help or encouragement.”
June Stewart, executive director of the Shuswap Children’s Association, says the mission at the centre is simple. The centre supports families in giving children the best possible start in the critical early years.
“All the research shows early intervention is so important,” she says. “If you can work with families at the earliest opportunity, you make tremendous progress. It’s so much harder if you have to wait.”
Everyone who works at the 33-year-old centre believes without hesitation that all children deserve that support. But Stewart notes there are also broader benefits to society from early intervention.
“We need every person to have the chance to contribute their abilities to build a strong society,” she says. “And we know that helping children in their early years is much less costly than trying to deal with health issues and other problems later.”
Morgan doesn’t need convincing. “We were just lucky that we had access to this service,” she says. “I hate to think what could have happened.”
But access for some families is a growing concern. “I know there are kids on the waiting list to get into the program,” says Morgan. “If we catch them before they get worse, we can save money in the long run.”
Wait times to access programs and services are an increasing problem for the 30 member agencies that belong to the BC Association for Child Development and Intervention, says Jason Gordon, Provincial Advocate for the BCACDI. While each agency raises funds in their communities, stable provincial funding for core programs is critical. Since 2009 provincial funding to Child Development Centres has been essentially frozen despite ongoing increases in costs associated with operating an agency. Members have been forced to cut costs in order to balance budgets, instead of focusing on expanding programs and services to meet the needs of their communities.
Chase is 2 now, and thriving. Morgan credits the Shuswap Children’s Centre for playing a vital role: “Without services like the infant development program, many children’s lives would be so much different.”
How you can help: Learn more about child development and early intervention in British Columbia at www.bcacdi.org, and how to support the Shuswap Children’s Association at www.http://shuswapchildrens.ca. The B.C. Association for Child Development and Intervention represents 30 agencies that deliver services to 15,000 children and youth.