Taking a tour of the modern new 4,700 square-foot Niagara Nursery School (NNS) addition at the community centre during their grand opening Saturday, it was difficult not to reflect on the impact it had on my own family.
When our son Sebastian was born 21 years ago next month, my wife Mishka and I were first-time parents here in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Fairly new to the town, we had yet to make connections with others in the same early stages of raising a family.
When Sebastian was a toddler, we enrolled him in the program at the Niagara Nursery School, then being run as a cooperative out of the basement of the Kinsmen Scout Hall on King Street.
I remember climbing down those narrow, rickety stairs to drop him off. It was a cozy space, but it was a true basement. And it certainly wasn’t purpose-built with the idea of accommodating a nursery school.
As a cooperative at the time, parents were required to complete a number of duty days, which often meant taking a shift cleaning and sanitizing the toys and materials that children would be using. Mishka happily completed all of that required time.
Regional Coun. Gary Zalepa, whose son Nathan was there at the same time, remembers what those duty days were like.
“I cleaned the bathrooms,” Zalepa laughed. “It was all hands on deck. We were trying to keep the place together. It was really grassroots, organizing fundraising just to pay the bills. It was a family and community kind of thing. We walked our kids there. It was really important to the earlier part of our life.”
Staff and board members, town officials, federal and provincial members of Parliament and community members gathered Saturday to celebrate the official opening of the new space. Those memories from nearly two decades ago made it difficult for me to reconcile the new facility as the same organization from back then.
The spacious addition to the community centre is now licensed for 69 children, including 10 infants, 15 toddlers, 24 preschoolers and 20 school-aged kids. There is a separate room for each group, each with high ceilings, bright-coloured walls, large windows, and its own washroom so the entire class isn’t disrupted when nature calls.
It’s a clean, spacious building with brand new furniture, an office space and staff room. Each classroom is outfitted with age-appropriate decor and materials. In the infant room there is a separate diaper changing area, complete with a window looking back into the classroom. They thought of everything in the design process.
Just as important, especially with COVID still hovering over all gatherings, is the outdoor space. There are a number of enclosed spaces that have allowed educators such as Wendy Kulp, known to students as Miss Wendy, to spend most of the fall season outside with their students. As she looked out the window of the room where she teaches the school-aged children, Kulp told The Local that the kids have their own special names for each play area.
Before cutting the ribbon (Kulp reminding the group to save the ribbon for use in her classroom), a series of dignitaries stepped to the microphone. The speakers included Lord Mayor Betty Disero, MP Tony Baldinelli, MPP Wayne Gates, Zalepa, Town CAO Marnie Cluckie and Darlene Edgar, Niagara Region’s children’s services director.
Disero spoke of the initiative taken by NNS executive director Candice Penny and the board of directors in getting the ball rolling on the construction, including their successful application for an Ontario Early Years Capital Program Grant. Cluckie marvelled at the fact that, unlike many such large projects, they were there to cut the ribbon for one that came in on time and on budget.
Saying “I promised I wouldn’t do this,” Penny choked up during her speech, becoming emotional as she mentioned Miss Wendy, the soon to retire Edgar, and NOTL facilities supervisor Hans Paul, who could be spotted at the construction site every single day of the 10-month construction period.
And it was clear through everyone’s address to the gathering that the new location came about because of the generosity of the NOTL community through donations, led by the NOTL Rotary Club. And the need for the additional child care spaces will go a long way toward making the community a better place.
“This will allow for a shorter waitlist,” Penny said, “to ensure that anyone of any financial status can afford high-quality, safe care for their children. This is a pivotal moment for this community.”
It’s easy for many to think of NOTL as an aging community. But it is important to remember that for any municipality to thrive and grow, and to retain its youth, having good, affordable care for its children is absolutely necessary.
And for more than 45 years now, the Niagara Nursery School has been providing that service, and more importantly, bringing the community together.
The social circle that my family developed through the NNS about 18 years ago is still a major part of our lives, even as our children enter adulthood. We made lasting friendships through shared experiences long after we outgrew the nursery school. As parents, our best friends in town are those we met 18 years ago through our children.
And it’s reassuring to know that with this new facility, it’s likely that over the next 45 years the Niagara Nursery School will continue to bring the community together through new friendships.