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Fort St. John Child Development Centre celebrating 50 years in the community

Annual talent show in March will kick off a year-long celebration of the impact the CDC has had on the Peace region
Tana Millner, executive director, and Paddy-Jo Gill, speech pathologist, of the Fort St. John Child Development Centre.

The founding of the Fort St. John Child Development Centre (CDC) is the story of a strong group of parents advocating for the unique needs of their children.

The CDC is now celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, marking five decades of helping children and their families, all while building a strong sense of community throughout the region.

The movement to bring the CDC to the Peace began in 1972 when Sherry McDonald’s infant daughter, Holly, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

As there were no services available in Fort St. John, the two had to fly to Prince George and stay in a motel so Holly could get the specialized physiotherapy services she needed from the Prince George CDC.

For McDonald, this was an exhausting time of life as she not only had to make sure Holly got the therapy she needed, but she also had three other children at home and a husband who was working in the oil patch.

Her other children were also involved in many extracurricular activities, and they had a large herd of cattle to feed.

Despite being so busy, McDonald was about to take on a major project.

It was all hands to turn the sod in mid-September 1982, as the Child Development Centre official got start on its new building. Equipped with hard hats and shovels were (left to right) Wayne Loewen, general contractor, Jim Rose, architect, Jim Jamison, long time board member, Dr. Moody, Mayor Brian Palmer, and Audrey Brummet. (Alaska Highway News Archives)

The executive director of the Prince George CDC called McDonald into her office one day and asked if she would be willing to try and start a Cerebral Palsy Child Development Centre in Fort St. John.

“To say I was shocked and overwhelmed at the idea would be a gross understatement,” said McDonald, in a letter recounting the history of the CDC.

However, her husband Bill suggested that if she decided to do it, it would benefit a large number children — so she accepted the challenge.

The first thing she did was put a call out to find parents and professionals who would be interested in such a centre in Fort St. John.

She took an ad out in the newspaper and scheduled a meeting asking Pat Phillips, the Executive Director of the Cerebral Palsy Association of BC, to attend as a guest speaker.

“Fort St. John is a very generous community and there was a positive response to the request to start the organization and serve on the board,” she said.

Ceremonial burning of the mortgage belong to the Child Development Centre took place during mid-October of 1984. (Alaska Highway News Archives)

McDonald served as vice-president when the Association was incorporated in the fall of 1973 and the following year it hired its first physiotherapist.

The name was later changed to the Child Development Centre of Fort St. John and District as it treated children with a multitude of issues.

Then in the early 1980s, the CDC acquired its own building and in 1990 an addition was added to provide more programming.

In 2008, the society undertook project “Build A Fort” to increase the building size to 20,000 square feet, and once again added more programs to meet the demand.

Most recently, the centre incorporated a nature-based playground into its outdoor space.

Youngsters test out the new slide at the Child Development Centre's new adventure playground, July 17, 2018. (Matt Preprost)

The CDC also has a history of receiving multiple awards for excellence, including the Premier’s award for Promoting Innovation and Excellence for Children and Youth with Special Needs, the Community Impact Award from Autism BC, and the People’s Choice award for best preschool and daycare.

“There are so many special moments that have occurred at our centre. Each day I get the pleasure of witnessing my colleagues make significant positive impacts on the lives of children and families,” said CDC executive director Tana Millner.

“Seeing a kiddo go from a wheelchair to a walker, watching the joy on a parent’s face when their son or daughter develops the necessary skills to communicate with them. Seeing friendships form in our group programs for children that sometimes find it challenging to build relationships, all this and so much more is the reason I love my job and this centre.”

Looking back through the years, Millner says there are a few moments that make her tear up, including when Rick Hansen stopped by the centre on his Man in Motion Tour.

“He took time out of his schedule to hang out with one of our little people who had just received a new wheelchair. Rick demonstrated the fine art of ‘popping a wheelie’ and for that child you could see that his day shifted from one of uncertainty to one with possibilities.”

Karen Mason-Bennett, whose child began using services at the CDC in 2007, says the centre was a lifeline when her kids were growing up and became de facto-extended family.

“I firmly believe that we would not have the child we have today — ready to graduate from high school and applying to university — without the support of the Child Development Centre,” said Mason-Bennett.

“Their family centred approach included us as parents and as people, understanding that we were also learning and adapting to our new norm, poorly equipped and desperately trying to do our best. I am forever grateful.”

Greg Carillo performs a dance routine at the 44th CDC Talent Show at the North Peace Cultural Centre on Friday, March 2, 2018. (Eve Petford)

Almost as long as the CDC has been around, so has its annual talent show fundraiser.

The first one was held in 1976 and took place at the Alexander Mackenzie Inn with nearly 70 separate acts playing to an audience of 600-plus, and raising $3,300.

The talent show has since become a tradition in the community and will now be back for the first time in two years after a COVID-19 hiatus.

The funds raised at this year’s show will go towards the CDC’s “Raise The Roof” campaign, which will see a roof on the older section of the building replaced.

“As non-profit funding is always a challenge, we consistently fund raise to maintain quality programming and services,” explained Millner.

Phase 2 of the Child Development Centre in 1990. (Alaska Highway News Archives)

Despite being funded in part by the provincial government, Millner says the centre hasn't received any increases to core early intervention services in more than fifteen years.

“During this time our caseloads have tripled, creating long wait times for families, and adding stress to our staff as they try to navigate large caseloads and the pressure felt for those children waiting for service.”

She says recruitment and retention has also been a bit tricky in a rural, northern region, but that the CDC is fortunate though to have many long-term employees that are part of the community.

“I feel blessed to be part of an organization that helps children and families reach their full potential, and to be part of the community that built it,” said Millner.

While the 50th anniversary festivities kick off with the Talent Show, which takes place 6 p.m. March 3 at the North Peace Cultural Centre, celebrations will be ongoing all year long with several open houses, a summertime BBQ, and wrapping up with an anniversary gala in the fall.