Update 6:10 p.m.: Late Friday afternoon the Ministry for Children and Family Development told Starbright Children’s Development Centre it’s extending the centre’s contract for two years. We’ll have more details when they become available.
Amy Johnston said she was devastated when she learned through the media that the Starbright Children’s Development Centre in Kelowna, B.C., was losing its government contract and would be forced to close.
“We were just at home and I was reading the news and it said Starbright losing its funding and I started crying,” said Johnston.
Johnston and husband, Brandon, have a four-year-old son named Lincoln, who has been accessing services at the 57-year-old early intervention facility for two years, shortly after being diagnosed with autism.
“Lincoln is nonverbal. He also has challenges I would say with social connections,” Johnston said.
But now children like Lincoln will have to transition to a hub model as the province moves to centralize support services for children with special needs.
The government is creating what is calls ‘pilot family connections centres’ (FCC) for children aged 0 to 18 in four B.C. communities including Kelowna.
“To me that is just mind blowing. Why would you not work with the support and the service providers who are already doing this, who are already in relationships with people that have relationships with kids like Lincoln,” Johnston said.
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“One of the main parts of his diagnosis is that he doesn’t deal well with change.”
Johnston started a ‘Support Starbright’ Facebook page that has now grown to more than 650 members.
An online petition was also started and has garnered more than 2,500 signatures in just a few short days.
“It just has picked up speed…it’s just caught wind because it is such a compelling story,” Johnston told Global News.
“Everyone should be watching what’s happening in Kelowna. Everyone should be watching the panic and the tears, the emotion happening here because my understanding is it’s coming for everyone.”
Johnston has also organized a support rally slated for this Saturday.
“To show that we cannot be ignored,” she said.
It’s been two weeks since Starbright invited the premier to tour the facility to show first hand what the community will lose as a result of the government’s decision, but so far there’s been no response from David Eby or his office.
“It’s disappointing,” Starbright’s executive director Rhonda Nelson said. “I would love for him to come and see what it is we do and meet our families and meet our staff.”
Nelson said the non-profit organization is working round the clock to save the facility before it’s too late and has put forth a proposal to the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
“We put forward a workable solution to them to have Starbright remain working with the little ones under six, while the pilot will continue with the children that have already made the transition to the school district,” Nelson said. “However, we have had no firm written commitment at all from the ministry.”
The contract at Starbright was originally slated to end on March 31 but the government has since decided to provide transitional funding to give families more time to move over to the FCC, which is being created at the Capri Centre mall and will be operated by ARC Programs.
ARC is a private company that will contract out services to other private companies and non-profit organizations.
Saturday’s rally will start at 10:30 a.m. in Starbright’s parking lot at the corner of Bernard Avenue and Elm Street.
Johnston said the rally is only the first of many more to come.
“We are not going to sit down and let this happen,” Johnston said. “We are going to rally and we will rally again, we will rally again and we will rally again and we will write petitions and we will travel to the province. We will do what we need to do to be heard because these are our kids.”
Johnston is pleading with the premier to re-consider and has a message for B.C.’s leader and father of two.
“Just imagine that you had a child who had higher needs, who was getting services and love and attention and that your life was functioning because of the structure and support that has been put in place,” she said.
“And that a government could come and just in one fell swoop literally wipe out every support.”
Starbright serves approximately 1,000 children every year from birth until school-entry age.