Little Rainbows Early Learning centre needs community support

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The excitement is palpable for Janice Shields as she prepares to open the Little Rainbows infant and toddler-care centre, as is the need for community support to help the centre succeed.

Shields as executive director and a board of directors are behind plans to open the Little Rainbows Early Learning Centre, to be housed in the recently completed 1,500-square-foot addition to the Rainbow Road Aquatic Centre. With housing and employment being major concerns on Salt Spring, the board is looking for community support as they recruit new early childhood educators (ECEs), find them housing and also equip the new centre with resources, books and playground equipment.

The new board formed to open Little Rainbows operates under the umbrella of the Gulf Islands Early Learning Society (GIELS), a society with charitable status that has been active on Salt Spring for close to 40 years and runs the Salt Spring Early Learning Centre. Two years ago, as the provincial government was making funding available for new early learning spaces, the board was initially working with the Gulf Islands School District to operate a future early learning space with the district. 

The board then found out the Capital Regional District (CRD) had received grants to construct an addition to the aquatic centre as well as a stand-alone purpose-built classroom — both meant to house early childhood education. The board was initially advising the CRD, including informing them about the very dire need for infant and toddler spaces. They later bid on the project with the CRD and were successful. Little Rainbows will be leasing the expanded multipurpose space at the aquatic centre daytime from Monday to Friday.

Tree Frog Daycare was the last space for infant and toddler care to open, in 1994, and closed in November 2021 due to the combined staffing and workforce housing shortage. 

“It had four infant toddler spaces, and there’s been no other childcare since then, for the infant age group,” Shields said. “So it’s well overdue.” 

Shields has been told by Salt Spring midwives that around 70 children are born to parents here every year. A fundraising letter from Little Rainbows also states that a recent needs survey showed 75 families are looking for infant and toddler care.

Since coming to Salt Spring to work for and manage Tree Frog in 1994, Shields has also worked in the school district with children with special needs, with StrongStart and most recently with the Seamless Day kindergarten pilot program at Fulford Community Elementary School.

The biggest hurdle Little Rainbows is facing currently is recruiting staff. Once it is up and running, Shields hopes to have four full-time staff in addition to herself as an administrator, or three-full time staff and a few working part-time. All educators working in the early childhood space need to be certified, and Little Rainbows will need ideally two ECEs with the infant and toddler certificate, as well as ECEs and ECE assistants. 

Part of the challenge is ECE salaries, which Shields noted haven’t grown with time and are quite different from a teacher’s wage despite the important service they provide. The province is working to attract people to this career through education grants for people certifying as ECEs and getting further qualifications. While this is great to see, Shields said, there also needs to be a focus on keeping people in the profession by making theirs a living wage.

There are ways to study for an ECE certificate remotely, and some on Salt Spring have done this, for example through Northern Lights College. High school students can also begin their education to be an ECE in their senior years. Shields hopes to see Little Rainbows offer practicum spaces down the road, as a practicum is a requirement for students to receive their certificate.

As businesses see staffing challenges across Salt Spring Island and Shields knows most ECEs and where they’re already employed here, Little Rainbows will likely need to recruit off-island ECEs. This means they will need a place to stay, so Shields is asking anyone who might have a suitable place to rent to get in touch.

The Little Rainbows board has also reached out to the community for financial support to purchase learning resources, books and playground equipment. 

“The grant was for the building and then a bit of equipment, but it doesn’t cover the finer resources,” Shields explained. 

There’s a lot of work ahead to get to opening Little Rainbows, something that hasn’t deterred the team behind making the centre a reality.

“The community has been needing infant care for so long. As a group of passionate ECEs that exist in the community, we couldn’t let the opportunity go by,” Shields said. “We figured we had to try and create the vision, so here we are. A lot of us are at the end of our careers, but it’s still fairly fitting to be a part of it.” 

Members of the Little Rainbows board are Kathryn Akehurst, Jaylene D’Amboise (Kaye), Janet Hoag, Trish Hoffman and Andrea Hollingsworth.

With licensing with Island Health done and staff hired, the centre will be able to open to 12 children up to age 36 months at a time. They will likely be serving more than 12 children as some may only come on certain days. There are already 20 on the waitlist.

To connect with the Little Rainbows board about employment, housing or donations, or to be added to the waitlist, email littlerainbows@giels.org.

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