The smell of coffee and the pitter patter of little feet fill the gymnasium at the Military Family Resource Centre’s Pacific Activity Centre.
Excitement begins to build as more and more toddlers fill the space in Colwood. This month’s Books for Breakfast event has drawn about 100 children and their parents or guardians and was to be followed by another group of roughly the same size for Literacy for Lunch.
Twenty-one-month old twins Kaelyn and Costin Campbell, here with their mom, Pamela, are experiencing Books for Breakfast for the first time. The siblings, their heads a mass of blonde ringlets, bounce around the room taking in the excitement – with mom running after them.
“It’s overwhelming,” Campbell says, while admitting she’s eager to return with her kids when the program starts back up in the fall. “Look how happy everyone is,” she adds, pointing around the room. While there are a few whines, the sounds of crying toddlers is noticeable absent.
The new Langford resident was excited when a friend invited her to attend this family focused event. Campbell notes that it’s hard to find resources like this, especially one that offers a free book at the end of each session. “They really gauge their audience; look at all the activities.”
With sometimes more than 200 children coming through the doors, the program has grown considerably from its humble beginnings.
“It actually started as a program for kids with special needs,” says program co-ordinator Darlene Manthorpe. It was originally housed in a classroom at John Stubbs elementary and had about 20 participants. At that time, she says, it was only supposed to run for five months. By the second year, the program was open to all children up to the age of six.
“The idea was to get people comfortable in a school,” she says, noting that some of the original participants weren’t comfortable in a more institutionalized setting such as a classroom.
Shantael Sleight, Your Literacy Connection West Shore outreach co-ordinator, explains further that “the idea was to bridge families going from preschool into the school system.”
The program, which now caters to two groups – one in the morning, another in the afternoon – offers snacks (including Starbucks coffee donated by the Westshore Town Centre location) and followed by some singing and dancing and two stories which are read aloud to the group. Children are encouraged to interact however they wish, plus there are additional games and activities for them to partake in. After all the fun, children select a book of their own to take home, usually one of the two stories read to them.
But this program isn’t just about literacy.
Sleight says some pregnant women even phone asking if they can bring newborns to the program. “For them it’s more about the social connection,” she says, adding some families come from as far as Sidney.
A number of organizations and community groups have also joined the fun, offering information on everything from dental care to resources such as the Greater Victoria Public Library.
The program has snowballed into what it is today, mostly on its own. “It’s word of mouth, we don’t market it,” Sleight says.
The only place information is posted is on Your Literacy Connection’s website (sookewestshoreliteracy.ca).
Sleight plays a large role in helping the program grow, Manthorpe says. “She does all of that so I don’t have to worry about getting the word out … West Shore Literacy is another huge supporter,” she says. “All of us in this program are volunteers … It’s such a great community.”
That said, the program does rely on the generosity of others. With stable funding coming from the Sooke School District every year, Manthorpe says donations such as the $8,000 contributed by the Oak Bay Kiwanis Club can be stretched and made to go a lot further.
“(The) MFRC has been a huge support,” she says, noting the organization provides the gym free for the program. “Without this space we wouldn’t be able to put this on.”
It’s a lot of space compared to the little classroom that once housed the program.