MUSKOKA – Collaboration and community involvement may be the best way to improve social and health services in these tough economic times, according to research.
Rick Williams, District of Muskoka community services commissioner, left, and Wilfrid Laurier University professors Colleen Loomis and Mark Pancer flip through a workbook about Better Beginnings, Better Futures, a program geared toward enhancing community vibrancy and children’s futures through citizen involvement.
The Muskoka Outreach Conference, held Jan. 21 at Hidden Valley Resort in Huntsville, brought nearly 20 social, medical, emergency and government service organizations together to discuss best practices in outreach programming and brainstorm ideas for collaboration.
The District of Muskoka, Muskoka Women’s Advocacy Group and Family, Youth and Child Services of Muskoka hosted the conference.
Rick Williams, commissioner of community services for the district, opened the day-long event by talking about Muskokan families’ growing needs and service gaps in the region.
“It’s probably not going to be an easy fix unless we try to do something differently because, in the current (provincial economic) climate, we won’t necessarily have the gobs of additional resources to meet our growing needs,” said Williams.
He noted that the district’s Ontario Works caseload is growing at the highest rate in the province and its Ontario Disability Support Program rates per capita are 40 per cent higher than the rest of Ontario.
Twenty-three per cent of the region’s population is age 65 and over, which ties with the province for first place for most aged demographic, and average incomes in the region are only 84 per cent of the provincial average and dropping, said Williams.
Smoking and alcoholism rates are high in Muskoka as are low education rates and risk of family violence. The region’s vast geography does not help matters because vulnerable individuals and families in rural and remote areas are often difficult to reach, especially with limited public transportation, said Williams.
And the rivalry between the region’s municipalities often has them competing for services rather than collaborating. Williams said this has to change because it spreads services too thin and makes service providers feel it is not worthwhile or cost-effective to locate here.
As public sector funding constraints continue, services may start consolidating in large urban centres with Muskoka losing out.
Williams said it is time for action.
He noted that five per cent of Muskoka’s population, or about 3,000 people, are designated at risk.
He said the region’s many services providers, including the district, need to work together on ideas such as a comprehensive and collaborative website, a strong volunteer base, effective marketing of services and collaborative strategies. Collaboration would reduce duplication and enhance effectiveness, he said.
Guest speakers Dr. Colleen Loomis and Dr. Mark Prancer, both from Wilfrid Laurier University, suggested citizen involvement could lead to effective social programs as well.
The two spoke about the Better Beginnings, Better Futures research project started in 1991 to “prevent children in low-income, high-risk communities from experiencing poor developmental outcomes, which then require expensive health, education and social services.”
Prancer said the goals of the project included reducing emotional, academic, behavioural, cognitive and social problems in children while promoting healthy communities and supporting community development.
Eight communities in Ontario participated in the project. About 5,000 children were involved.
The project focused on creating programs for children and their families that addressed needs unique to their communities. Partnerships between service providers and educational organizations were established and both community members and service organizations were involved in developing the programs, said Prancer.
“The most distinguishing feature is the involvement of community residents, particularly parents,” he said. “The residents of these high-risk communities weren’t just participants in programs. They weren’t just clients of services. They were involved in every aspect of program development, delivery and evaluation. And these were just people who lived in these neighbourhoods.”
Programs, whether in schools or the broader community, ranged from nutrition programs to home visits, playground creation, daytrips, summer camps, parent support groups, parent education and others.
While community members often started with trepidation, their involvement gave them not only experience with leadership roles and tasks such as writing grant proposals, but also gave them confidence, pride and a sense of ownership in their communities, said Loomis.
Community members and parents sat on boards and sub-committees, made budget decisions, lobbied governments for funding and support, hired and evaluated project staff or became staff themselves because of their community expertise.
“Community members reported that they had a greater sense of belonging, a greater sense of membership. They felt they could influence what happens in their community, and that their community influences them in a positive way,” said Loomis. “Working together helps create the benefits of ownership, more resources and having a safer, more attractive community.”
The project results showed that programs, partnerships, leadership and resident engagement developed in a collaborative environment are sustainable.
Children who lived in the participant communities had better academic performances and fewer emotional problems, parents had fewer social problems and there were fewer property crimes, among other results.
And an economic analysis showed that for every $1 spent on Better Beginnings, Better Futures, $2.50 was saved in terms of social and special educational program spending.
“A lot of the impact was because of this really concerted effort to reach out to members of the community,” said Prancer.
Workshops continued throughout the day.
The District of Muskoka has received provincial funding for continued research into collaboration through the Innovative Outreach Program.
Williams reported during a district council meeting on Jan. 30 that the district received one of six $25,000 grants to help communities plan outreach strategies to assist hard-to-serve families.
According to Williams’ report, the funds will go toward researching best practices for service enhancement and outcomes, talking to service providers about their strategies and needs, collaborative meetings and creating an implementation and evaluation strategy.
“We expect outcomes that will improve District and local agency service capacity and outcomes,” Williams stated in his report.