“Every child deserves the best opportunity to be their best self,” is the guiding principle behind Canada’s first “education bank” as envisioned by Theresa Pastore. As the executive director of Parents Engaged in Education (PEIE), a community organization dedicated to equipping parents with the skills and knowledge to support their child through school, Pastore has transformed an  empty office space in Sarborough Ontario into The Family Services Centre, a place where students whose families qualify for low income support or government assistance can find everything they need for school.

Families visit the newly opened center to look for school supplies.

Functioning much like a food bank, The Family Services Centre provides school supplies such as notebooks, binders, backpacks, pencils, etc. along with personal care items like lotion, shampoo and feminine hygiene products, and if the center doesn’t have what a student needs, they will find a way to get it. There are several “heritage circles” with puzzles, activities, and books by Black, Indigenous and authors from other cultures. Because creativity is a key component of a education and mental health, The Family Services Centre is also stocked with art supplies.

While there is no cost for the supplies or services, students are required to earn what they need with the idea that, “when you work, you have the power to decide what you want or need instead of that being determined by someone else.” For older children this work could be volunteering time for which they will also receive community service hours for school. Younger children might do something creative like draw a picture for the “art wall” or write a story.

Reusable lunch-bags for children at The Family Service Centre.

A lunch-bag program provides each student who visits a reusable lunch-bag filled with healthy food and snacks that the student can bring back on subsequent visits to be refilled with more healthy goodies. Even parents are provided a space within The Family Services Centre with a coffee table and comfortable chairs. There will also be opportunities for parents to attend presentations on topics such as mental health strategies, learning strategies, and training to help their children in school and life.

A donation from HP Canada has provided two 3-D printers and fifteen computers along with printers for students to use for schoolwork and creative endeavors. These computers will also have access to the Ontario school curriculum. During the early days of the pandemic, HP Canada and PEIE worked together to refurbish 170 donated laptops and distribute them to students who needed a way to access online learning from home. A STEM area features build-a-robot kits and coding games for older kids and there is a “learner’s corner” for younger children with books, blocks, and a piano play mat. Once COVID restrictions have lifted and children are able to attend birthday parties again, those who can’t afford a birthday present can show the party invitation to staff and will be given a game, a gift bag, and a birthday card. This small kindness shows how well thought out Pastore’s vision for the center is.

PEIE worked to refurbish 170 computers and created Learn at Home kits for students early on in the pandemic.

The Ward where the center is located has one of the city’s highest youth unemployment rates. By providing students and families with resources and support that number is sure to change in the future. Pastore’s hope is that the new center will be in a position to help 4000 children and youth each year as families visit for school supplies and training, and also as a resource for shelters and other service providers. In the past shelters have had to focus on meeting the most basic needs of families, leaving education

For now, visitors must schedule appointments to visit the center and are screened for symptoms of COVID-19. There they are also issued masks, and hand sanitizer when they arrive and provided with additional masks and sanitizer to take home for family members. Children under 13 must be accompanied by a parent in order to visit.

The Family Services Centre is an impressive achievement and one that seems not only necessary but also possible for other cities in Canada and in the United States. Especially in light of the inequalities in our educational systems exacerbated by the pandemic, and the increasing number of parents who have lost jobs or income. With parents required to play a more active role in education in school systems where learning is still being done remotely, the training and workshops provided by such a resource center could prove useful to all parents and students.

Visit the homepage for Parents Engaged in Education for more information about their work and the vision behind The Family Services Center. Educational resources and learning games for children are also available on this site.

An article in the Toronto Star about The Family Services Centre opening in Scarborough is available here.