By: Melissa Villeneuve

Family is the foundation for which we become and provides a support network for which we choose to be….

For 25 years, the Family Centre has celebrated what it means to be a family, recognizing the challenges and triumphs of relationship building, and providing support for members of our community. It’s a significant milestone for an organization that has grown to offer dozens of programs at three locations across the city and serve over 5,000 families per year.

Family Centre opened its doors on September 1, 1994, formed through a merger of Parents’ Place, and the Family and Community Development Program. “The goal was to create more programs and reach a bigger audience together,” says Sara Dziwoki, Family Centre’s Volunteer and Communications Coordinator. Barb Cunningham, who was the Executive Director for Parents’ Place, stayed on as the ED for Family Centre for close to a decade. She was followed by Crystal Elliot, and now Peter Imhof, who has served as Executive Director for the past five years. When Family Centre first opened, it employed five full-time staff, three part-time positions, and 25 volunteers. Today, there are 28 full-time employees and more than 200 people volunteer every year.

Locations are situated in each area of the city to reach as many families as possible. The main office is located downtown in Melcor Centre (formerly Lethbridge Centre mall). The West location, opened in 2017, is within Coalbanks Elementary School, and the North location at Interfaith Food Bank. With this partnership, they created the Interfaith Chinook Country Kitchen, which offers free cooking classes for adults and children ages 3 and up. The sessions are intended to teach healthy eating on a limited budget, and teach children how to create in the kitchen safely, read recipes, and encourage interest in nutrition. These are just a small sample of the programs offered through Family Centre. They also provide counseling, parent education, and many different play programs. Through the intake process, qualified personnel can identify the need for your family and make suggestions on which programs to take.

“All of our programs are really well-received,” says Sara. The focus is on building healthier brains in children, which helps them be better decision-makers later on in life, she explains. “I think they figured out that the most brilliant development happens in the first six years of your life. And this is how you make your decision, based on how you learn to deal with problems in this time,” she says. “So when we have parents and children together, in our play programs, we make sure that they have some sensory play, that they have some creative play, and that they have some messy play. All of our programs are directed to these things. So they can learn to react and things like what happens when they do different things, and the consequences. It all goes towards building better brains.”

One program, introduced last year, is seeing excellent results and is running again this year. The Lethbridge Senior & Kids Intergenerational Program (LSKIP) pairs children 2-10 years old and their caregiver with a senior at the Nord-Bridge Seniors Centre to engage in active play, games, and activities. “It's really fun for both generations,” says Sara. “And I think why we did this is because it's really good for seniors, but it's also good for kids to have connections with grandparents… they're active, and they're doing something. They don't just sit around.”

Family Centre just launched a new program for adults called Better Balance, which is about resiliency and the importance of self-care. “I think we all see that on a day to day basis. So I hope that (registration) will skyrocket in January,” says Sara. Another lesser-known, but vitally important program is called Solo Dads, which exists to strengthen the bond between children and fathers who are parenting on their own. “There’s a lot for single mothers out there, but very little for single dads,” says Sara. “So we’re trying to get more attention to that.” It also serves to provide a support network for single fathers to meet other solo dads through a group meeting once a month.

As a non-profit charitable organization, Family Centre relies on donations and volunteers to help with its programs and services. Most of the programming is provided at no cost, or for a small fee. While about 90 per cent of their funding comes from the government and organizations around the city, they must fundraise the remaining 10 per cent each year on their own. For the 25th anniversary, they’ve recently launched a $25,000 fundraising campaign, hoping to meet their target by the end of December. And the need for volunteers is always great, especially during their annual events. In December, for example, Family Centre runs the Santa photos booth at Centre Village Mall. “From Monday to Saturday we have just volunteers. And it's all donation-based, so you can get your free Santa photo,” says Sara.

Family Centre also organizes the annual McFamily Charity Gala in March, a Father’s Day celebration in June, a pancake breakfast in August, and a Halloween Boo Bash in October. “We have very dedicated volunteers that come and volunteer every week for programs. We have one volunteer, she's just amazing. She comes nearly every day to volunteer for our programs. We have a very cool volunteer who's in her 90s. She's our library volunteer and she still wears high heels. She's just awesome. But yeah, we always look for help from the community for sure to make those events happen.”

Family Centre is about connecting with others and building healthy family relationships. “I think when people use these services, they see how amazing it is,” says Sara. “We're so happy about 25 years. That's a big accomplishment. We’re still going strong and growing.”

For those who wish to get involved, contact Sara at 403-320-4232.

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