Parents form action group on daycare

- December 10, 2008

Almost everyday, Margo Kirk hears from a parent desperate to get their child in daycare. And everyday, she relates the sobering news: the limited spaces and the staggering waitlist of more than 300 names.

“It can be very stressful,” says Ms. Kirk, the executive director of University Children’s Centre, a nonprofit daycare on the Dalhousie campus. “We get calls from people whose babysitters have just quit, for example, and I’ll have to say, ‘sorry, we might have a space two years from now.’

“We just can’t be responsive at all to immediate needs.”

The centre has room for 78 children at its two locations: one on South Street, where care is offered to children ages four months to five years, and in the Life Science Centre, where there’s a morning nursery school program, plus lunch and after-school programs.

Alison Thompson, associate professor with the Department of Chemistry, asked about space for her son even before he was born. And not only at the University Children’s Centre. She called the YWCA, Saint Mary’s, Peter Green Hall and other centres. The response was always the same: we’ll put your name on a waiting list. You should phone back often to check where you are on the list.

It was a frustrating time. Not only was she learning to care for her newborn, she was keeping an eye on her research group at Dalhousie and worrying about her return to work with childcare very much in the air. It was just by sheer luck that she found out that the YWCA on Barrington Street was setting up an infant care facility before it was even in place—“we got in purely by chance,” she says.

Relating her experience to other parents at Dalhousie, she discovered it was hardly unique. Other faculty, staff and students related how they’d get a call for a space only after their child was in school. Or, how they’d created a patchwork of care, relying on babysitters, parents and neighbors so they could return to work.

“So many people need daycare,” says Prof. Thompson. “It’s not a stupid, out-there thing to request … but right now, people have no expectations they’ll get their child in (anywhere) despite how many times they phone and fill out the application forms.”

Prof. Thompson and 30 like-minded parents have formed an action group and taken their cause to the consultants for Dalhousie’s campus master plan. She says Dalhousie needs two additional facilities for daycare, with room for at least 200 children and babies.

At a meeting last month for the master campus plan, Larry Sherman, the Toronto architect leading the consulting team, related how the need for daycare has come up repeatedly. He confessed it was an issue he didn’t expect. “We are finding the campus does not serve its community in many ways,” he said.

But with the campus plan still in a “listening phase,” Prof. Thompson says the problem is too acute and can’t wait. She’s investigated a provincial initiative that aims to increase accessibility to daycare by providing funds in the form of a forgivable loan to cover up to 75 per cent of construction and outfitting of new nonprofit facilities, with the remaining 25 per cent available as a one per cent loan or as a financial contribution from a partner. The Early Learning and Childcare Initiative, offered through the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services, is likely to accept applications early in the new year.

“To enable the application, we need a commitment from the university,” she says.


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