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Treehouse emphasizes inclusivity

School integrates range of ability as important learning tool

This story is the second of a two-part series highlighting programs offered by the Richmond Society for Community Living, to celebrate the province declaring October as Community Living Month.

As soon as Jennifer McKay wheeled her youngest daughter Layla into Treehouse Early Learning Centre, four children came running over to hug the petite three-and-a-half year old.

As McKay looked on, she told the News she moved from Vancouver to Richmond specifically for the services and programs available for her daughter through the Richmond Society for Community Living.

Layla was born with two rare genetic disorders - Rubinstein-Taybi Syndrome (which is characterized by short build, distinctive facial features, and varying degrees of mental disability) and Pierre Robin Complex (also known as Pierre Robin Malformation, a congenital condition of facial abnormalities).

"Treehouse was recommended to me and it was a perfect fit for Layla," said McKay, who has two older daughters without disabilities. "I needed a preschool that was wheelchair accessible and one that was set up to handle her special needs."

Treehouse is an inclusive childcare program, for children age two and a half to five, run by RSCL.

"When I came to Treehouse for a few meetings, the staff was completely ready to go and RSCL made Layla's transition so cohesive and seamless," said McKay. "Layla relies on people to feed her, care for her and play with her . as a mom I wanted to know that my child would be cared for with love and I feel it here."

RSCL believes that inclusion at an early age sets the stage for acceptance for all.

"Early childhood is a time when we start to develop our identity and empathy," said Sue Graf, RSCL director of children's services. "Children's thoughts about who they are and how they feel about themselves and others are influenced by the world around them; this includes prejudices and racism.

"By providing an inclusive child care setting, we are able to provide positive experiences and encourage positive attitudes in children regarding people who live with a disability which we hope they will carry with them throughout their lives."

Right now, eight of the 25 children attending Treehouse have disabilities, but they come on varying days and times, said Maralea Schroeder, RSCL supported child development consultant.

Schroeder worked closely with Layla's family since last March to ensure Layla's first day at Treehouse would be seamless.

"I had visits with the family and with Layla's support team and then we started setting goals," said Schroeder, who typically visits Treehouse twice a month to observe and make recommendations. "We made sure all of her needs would be covered, needs such as her feeding and mobility issues, to ensure the staff were ready when Layla came in September."

In the meantime, as Lucia Rincon, a Treehouse senior counsellor, sat to chat with the News, two little girls vied for a spot on her lap. Rincon happily obliged.

"The children show so much compassion and empathy to the children who have a disability," said Rincon. "The children were very attracted to Layla from the beginning. From the first day, the children brought Layla toys and they love to sing to her.

"When she cries, they try to make her feel better . it's wonderful to see."

Rincon added the children seem to innately understand when Layla needs attention and when she needs some space.

"I think it's hugely important to give children a window into what other people's lives, such as Layla, are like," she added.

When Layla is ready to transition to kindergarten, Treehouse staff will liaison with the elementary school to ensure the staff is ready.

"Someone from the elementary school will come over and visit Layla here and we will go over all of her needs," added Rincon.

Another unique component of Treehouse is that RSCL adults often come out to the learning centre to volunteer.

"We have adults from some of our other programs who come and visit and the children just love them," said Rincon.

Although integration wasn't the primary reason Cathie Sichewski and her husband Paul Ursich chose Treehouse for their three-and-a-half-old daughter Claire, they are "overly" pleased nonetheless.

"I honestly can't say enough about Treehouse and about Lucia . I love that woman and the rest of the staff . you can tell they love their jobs," said Sichewski.

"The respect shown towards all the children, and the caring and compassion the children learn from being in an integrated preschool, is fantastic."

When Claire's parents interviewed for Treehouse, the staff asked if Claire had ever been exposed to children with special needs.

"We told them that Claire's friend Meghan has special needs and that Claire was very nurturing and protective of Meghan," said Sichewski.

"Claire has no fear of children with special needs, nor have I ever noticed fear from any of the other kids at Treehouse - they treat each other the same."

"I can't tell you how lucky we feel to have our daughter there, it is an incredible preschool," she added. "It's the best kept secret in Steveston."

For more information, call RSCL office at 604-279-7040 or visit www.rscl.org.

TREEHOUSE PRESCHOOL FEES

- Full time (five days): $465/month

- Part time (three days): $355/month

- Part time (two days): $255/month.

Subsidies are available through the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

Daycare Program fees (7: 30 a.m. to 5: 45 p.m.):

- Full time (five days): $655/month

- Part time (three days): $430/month

- Part time (two days): $330/month

mhopkins@richmond-news.com