Tadpoles were on the loose last week inside the Houston Friendship Centre.
One was painting, one did a jigsaw puzzle, and two dressed up like child-size copies of the constructions workers building a sidewalk outside on 11th Avenue.
The Tadpoles Playgroup is one of many programs the aboriginal centre offers parents with children under six.
Like all the programs at the Friendship Centre—from pregnancy outreach to baby-food making and after-school care for older kids—it’s free and open to anyone.
“There is still a myth out there that the Friendship Centre is for aboriginal people only, and it’s not,” said program director Kate Langham. “We offer services to all people.”
Most of the 150 to 250 people who come are aboriginal, but no one needs official status. Several Metis and people with aboriginal background have identified as aboriginal for the first time at the Friendship Centre, said Langham.
Participating families also come from all walks of life, she said. It’s not uncommon to see a parent with a mini-van give a lift to help a parent who is balancing several bags of groceries on a stroller.
“We’ve got a real community feel here,” she said.
When the centre kicked off its first soccer season last year, parents paid the fees on a sliding scale so that everyone’s kids got a chance to play. Getting more affordable recreation programs like Rocker Soccer is a priority for the centre, said Langham. Even one $150 registration fee is a lot to pay for families on social assistance.
Langham said a lot of the credit for the centre’s new programs goes to the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre in Smithers, which started managing the Houston centre four years ago.
Since then, the centre sold a second building that was a financial drain and put up new drywall, paint and flooring in every room of the building on 11th Avenue. A new fence just went up outside, meaning kids can safely play in the yard next spring. The centre also plans to plant a community garden, one that is a bit closer for people who find the one by Copeland Avenue too far to walk.
At the heart of all the changes is a new kitchen the centre added last year.
Food is central to the aboriginal tradition, Langham said—feasts are the model for all decision-making, talking and politics at the centre.
“There’s always food on the table, and that’s the starting point for conversation,” she said.
Bringing multi-generational families together is another goal at all 23 friendship centres in B.C. The Houston centre started a grandparents’ soup and bannock day last year.
Such activities try to recreate the aboriginal house of generations, Langham said, where grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and other family members got to spend more time together.
Along with the new kitchen several new programs, the Houston friendship centre has also faced new challenges. Last year they saw a record number of children sign up. Several programs ran at capacity, and some children had to be turned away.
The B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Services (MCFD), which provides friendship centres with most of their funding, has referred a dramatically higher number of families to the Houston centre in the last two years. At one point, the centre got 20 referrals a week.
Speaking to those pressures, Mel Bazil of Dze L K’ant recently asked a provincial finance committee for a $3.1 million boost in funding—the first increase for friendship centres since 1992. That works out to about $129,000 for each centre in B.C.
The same all-party committee recommended the province go ahead with that funding last year, but it did not go through.
So what would $129,000 mean to the Houston Friendship Centre?
Langham said her first priority would be making the centre more accessible to those who need it most.
Family support workers at the centre help at-risk families get to meetings with the MCFD, court dates, and heath appointments. Many of those services are in Smithers, but at the moment the centre has no van of its own to help families get there if they don’t have access to a vehicle.
Closer to home, the three flights of stairs at the friendship centre can be a barrier to elders or to parents with special-needs children that have extra gear to carry. Adding an elevator would be a huge benefit, Langham said.
Asked why she got involved at the centre, Langham said she comes from a long line of people involved in social work.
“It was naturally where my strengths fit,” she said. “I’m an advocate. I’m very passionate about advocating for people when I see social injustice.”