By Kevin To, Participant, Families and Schools Together, Catholic Family Service

In order for you to understand the depth of my appreciation for the Families and Schools Together (F&ST) program, you need to know a little bit about who I am and where I come from.

I was born to immigrant parents who arrived in this amazing country just a handful of years before I was born. My childhood memories are dominated by situations where both my parents were at work and I was left to fend for myself. Our family dinner conversations were often centered on their struggle to own our home and pay the bills. When it came to school, I was on my own. My mother frequently and proudly reminds me that on the day that she dropped me off at kindergarten for the first time, I didn’t speak a word of English.

My school life began as an uncertain and intimidating journey into new relationships with peers, adults that I didn’t know, and people who didn’t understand my challenges. Truth be told, it was a struggle. I didn’t know what was expected of me or what support was available to me. I remember on the last day of kindergarten, with the echoes of my parents warning me not to waste the opportunity they had given me, I tearfully asked my kindergarten teacher whether I had passed. Whether I could tell my parents that I had been good enough. As a young man, these fears often negated whatever confidence I could muster. When it came time for my older daughter Emma to start Kindergarten, I was determined to give her an even better head start than I had.

That’s where our journey with F&ST began. It was a night of firsts. The first time we did the F&ST wave and introductions, the first time we sat as a parent group to get to know each other, the first time we chatted with teachers outside of direct classroom talk. As a parent I found this to be very powerful.

New Network

By the time we started F&ST in January, Emma had already been in school for several months. In all that time, we hadn’t formed any meaningful relationships with other parents and our interactions with teachers and school administrators had been minimal. In one night, F&ST expanded our school social network by years. Now when we’re out and about and we see other F&ST families, it’s as if we’ve known them for years. I can’t tell you how powerful it is to know that the challenges we face as a family are not unique to us. We’re not alone. Other parents at the school face the same challenges we do and we can share tips and support with each other. The amazing thing is that the parental benefits of the F&ST program aren’t even the most significant part.

New Confidence

Let me tell you a little bit about how the F&ST program has impacted Emma. The first night of the program, everything felt foreign to Emma and she did what most kids her age do. She hid under my arm and kept quiet. But F&ST is about creating safe spaces for kids and building confidence. By the second or third session, Emma was introducing our family each night. She felt comfortable speaking to the room on our behalf, using a public speaking voice that I had never seen in her.

Most importantly, she had gained confidence in her school environment. During the dinner portion of the night, the kids assemble their parents’ dinner plates with guidance from the F&ST team. The F&ST team is comprised of program volunteers and staff at the school. Through this very simple activity, I watched my kids form trust relationships with teachers and administrators at St. Isabella. These aren’t their own teachers, mind you. These are teachers from other rooms and grades that our kids had never met before. That’s another core outcome from the F&ST program. Kids form meaningful relationships with trusted adults at their school. In an age where we parents are always concerned about the potential for bullying and other trouble at school, it’s a tremendous advantage for our kids to have trust relationships with key teachers and administrators. So that they know they’re not alone. So that they know there are people that can help them if things go south. The value of that is near infinite, and it’s something no parent can buy.

New Closeness

Let me share another story with you. Part of the F&ST agenda includes a period called Special Play.  It’s one-on-one time between a child and a parent. In our family, typically Emma is closer to me and Elizabeth is closer to my wife. For that very reason, we chose to have Special Play be between Emma and her mom each week. I wasn’t sure what the outcome would be but at the end the F&ST program, Emma was very clear that this was one of her favorite parts because, “Elizabeth always gets Mommy.” We had met a need that I didn’t even know existed.

New Outlook

I remember one day when Emma was having a tough day, a confluence of being a little bit under the weather and other stress factors at school. I remember thinking that night that we’ll go to F&ST and if things go off the rails maybe we’ll go home early. Let me tell you that F&ST totally turned Emma’s day around. At the beginning of each F&ST night, we sing a song together called I Think You’re Wonderful. That and the funny F&ST wave are probably the two parts of the F&ST evening that fathers struggle with most. It doesn’t really fit the “tough guy” role we usually play. Turns out it was exactly what Emma needed to hear that day. By the time she got through Special Play that night, her day had totally turned around. I remember walking to the car holding Emma’s hand at the end of the night. She said, “Daddy, thanks for bringing us to F&ST tonight. I feel better now.” I can’t tell you how much that touched me as a parent.

New Relationships

Sometimes when you do these programs, you wonder if it’s the program itself or just the fact that you’re spending time together that makes the difference. One of the activities we did over the course of the program was a Trust Diagram. Kids trace their hand on a sheet of paper and then write one person they trust on each finger. It’s meant to facilitate a discussion between parents and children about trusted adults and who they can go to if they need help. One of the names Emma wrote down was “Sarah.” At first I wasn’t sure if this was an older student that had come to her class for reading time or a teacher or one of the staff at her daycare. “No,” Emma said, “that Sarah.” She was pointing at Sarah, our F&ST program coordinator. The program had made an incredible impact in her life and Sarah was the face of that program. If we needed more validation, this was it.

F&ST helps families in many more ways than one can imagine at the beginning of the program. It is far more than simply spending time and breaking bread with your kids. It is a chance to push aside the “noise” of the hectic week and really focus on relationships. Every parent wants their kids to have a sense of confidence and comfort within their school environment. F&ST has helped us come a long way in this regard.

Read more about the Families and Schools Together (F&ST) program offered by Catholic Family Service in Calgary.