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Working Together for Children's Futures

by Marie Clark

Il faut tout un village pour faire grandir un enfant-- “It takes a village to raise a child.” With this as its motto, Avenir d’enfants [children’s futures], a not-for-profit organization, has just begun to carry out its mandate of supporting local communities in Quebec that have made a commitment to promote the overall development of children age 5 and under who are living in poverty.

Avenir d’enfants is the result of the merger of two programs dedicated to helping very young children: the Early Childhood program at the Centre 1,2,3 GO!, previously funded by Centraide of Greater Montreal, and Québec Enfants, a project of the Lucie and André Chagnon Foundation. Mario Régis, formerly Director of the Centre 1,2,3 GO! and now Director of Community Support for Avenir d’enfants, believes that by combining the two programs’ complementary knowledge and know-how regarding child development and community mobilization, this new organization will be able to deliver more coherent, effective programs in the field. As Mr. Regis explains, “In many ways, Québec Enfants and the Early Childhood program at the Centre 1,2,3 GO! had similar missions, especially as regards mobilizing communities. When we started Avenir d’enfants, we made sure to bring the two programs’ experts along with us, so that we could continue learning about the conditions that must be established to let a community achieve great things.”

Over the years, the Centre 1,2,3 GO! had developed programs in a wide variety of fields besides child development, so it made sense for the Centre’s Early Childhood program to be spun off and partnered with Québec Enfants, a program dedicated to early childhood intervention and fighting child poverty. Thus, in July 2010, Avenir d’enfants, which had its official launch on April 16, 2010, will begin sponsoring projects proposed by regional consultation committees. Mr. Régis notes that “Whereas the program at the Centre 1,2,3, GO! focused its efforts in metropolitan Montreal, the ambition of Avenir d’enfants is to meet the needs of communities throughout Quebec for support for the development of children below age 5.”

Serving the cause of community development

Under the aegis of the Lucie and André Chagnon Foundation, Avenir d’enfants has set itself a rather unusual mission for an endowment fund: to provide not only financial support but also various forms of guidance to help communities achieve their goals. Avenir d’enfants has no intention of just handing out money to applicants and then washing its hands of what happens next, because supporting a range of complementary services similar to ones that already exist is somewhat like reinventing the wheel. As Community Support Director Régis puts it, “We believe that financial assistance alone is not enough to mobilize communities so that they can ensure the full development of their youngest children and learn from this process. Here at Avenir d’enfants, we want to build a relationship with Quebec communities so that we can act, for example, as intermediaries between community organizations and researchers.” Mr. Régis thus talks about maintaining a strategic watch to identify existing studies that that might help a particular community solve its own particular set of problems. And he adds, “We can also serve as a vehicle to bring together people who have carried out a given kind of project in their community with people who want to implement a similar project in theirs.”

Avenir d’enfants has adopted a flexible set of rules that let it adapt to the varying degrees of development in various communities. For example, some communities may already be extremely organized, already have prepared a neighbourhood profile and an action plan, and be requesting support for some particular aspect of this plan. Others may not yet have appointed any leaders or established a consultative committee, and will therefore need help in developing a coherent vision of how they want to organize. As Mario Régis puts it, “We want to start from where people actually are.”

Specialists in “translation”

Avenir d’enfants also knows that it’s not always easy to bring people from different organizations together around a table and get them to understand one another. The way Mr. Régis sees it, “Co‑ordinating these kinds of consultative committees is a whole new profession. I call it being a ‘logic translator’—people from the education system operate with their own particular logic, timetables, and vocabulary, which differ from those of community organizations, for example. You need somebody who can serve as a bridge between them. The worst mistake you can make is to assume that the other people at the table already understand the world in which you operate. In large part, that’s what our work as facilitators is all about.”

And while doing all that, Avenir d’enfants must also, of course, make sure to establish the most egalitarian relationships possible with the communities. “The one thing we want to avoid,” stresses Mario Régis, “is establishing some sort of top-down authoritarian relationship with people. We don’t pretend that we ourselves are done learning—far from it. We want to be a learning organization, and part of our values is to work on sharing knowledge. We want to learn from the communities and also to make what we learn from one community available to others.”

An emphasis on evaluation

Avenir d’enfants also considers it important to establish an evaluation culture in the communities that it serves. Mr Régis gives a hypothetical example. “Suppose a community decides that it wants to work with children who have language delays, to increase their chances of succeeding in school. So it prepares and delivers a series of workshops designed to stimulate these children’s language development. The report that we receive says that the workshops are very popular, that there’s a waiting list for them, and that the community needs more funding to run another series. But has this project actually achieved its desired effects? Are the children who attend the workshops really better prepared when they start school? Was this strategy the best one for achieving the desired objectives? Those are the kinds of questions that we want to get people to ask themselves.”

Avenir d’enfants is very concerned that the projects that it funds be properly evaluated, so that their impact can be enhanced—so much so that it automatically grants every project an additional budget to hire an evaluation professional. Mr. Régis explains, “It’s essential for us to verify whether a community’s action plan is achieving its objectives or at least moving in that direction. And it’s just as essential for the members of that community—to help them work effectively and get satisfying results in return for all the effort that they invest.”

A broader vision

But Avenir d’enfants also has a broader goal in mind. In addition to learning as much as possible from each community project that it supports, the organization also hopes to gain an overview of the communities’ main concerns by examining the action plans that they submit to get their projects funded. As Mario Régis puts it, “We hope to do even more than provide funding and guidance. For example, if 30 communities want to work on developing children’s language, maybe we can bring in some people who can provide their expertise to all of them. Maybe we can also develop some common tools.”

For now, Avenir d’enfants is providing guidance to 40 communities in eight different regions of Quebec and providing funding to 25 others in seven different regions of the province. With such a broad vision of community development, odds are that these numbers will double in the coming years!