The province and community activists have launched a drive to promote prenatal and early childhood programs among Manitoba's most impoverished families so kids from poor neighbourhoods get a better start in life.
The effort is supported by the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce and has gained the attention of a national philanthropic organization based in Montreal that invests in early childhood development. It thinks the effort, now concentrated in the city's North End, could serve as a template for other Canadian communities.
On Wednesday, Manitoba Children and Youth Opportunities Minister Kevin Chief kicked off Starting Early, Starting Strong, a provincial effort to mobilize communities to spread the word about prenatal and parenting programs.
'That tells you that there's energy. That tells you that there is enthusiasm (to foster change)'
Close to 300 people attended the initial meeting at the Aboriginal Centre of Winnipeg on Higgins Avenue. It's the first of a series of meetings to be held in various parts of the province.
Research is clear prenatal and parenting programs provide lasting social and economic benefits, Chief said.
The cabinet minister was buoyed by the turnout Wednesday. Many of those in attendance came from backgrounds of struggle and hardship or work with such people.
"That tells you that there's energy. That tells you that there is enthusiasm" to foster change, Chief said of the sizable crowd.
One of the community activists who attended the event Wednesday is an expectant mom herself.
Wendy Hallgrimson, program facilitator with the Winnipeg Aboriginal Sport Achievement Centre, promoted the event on Facebook and phoned all the expectant mothers she knew, inviting them to attend.
"I thought what a perfect opportunity for me to learn about what I can do for my baby and what I can do for myself," said Hallgrimson, who lives in the North End and hopes those who attended the meeting will spread the word to others.
Among the programs activists hope to promote are the province's healthy baby prenatal-benefit and community-support programs as well as the Triple P Parent line (204-945-4777 in Winnipeg), where moms and dads can talk to trained counsellors to help them with the challenges they face.
Elaine Ranville, a grandmother of five originally from Crane River, has lobbied the government on the need to reach out to extended families, not just moms and dads.
Many young mothers are unaware of the supports that are available to them, Ranville said. And grandmothers such as herself can help spread the word.
"They listen to relatives more than to outsiders," Ranville said.
In town for Wednesday's event were Ian Gill and Eric Young, who do contract work for the Montreal-based J.W. McConnell Family Foundation.
Gill said he feels there is a "shift of the sands" taking place in north Winnipeg, with business, government and community members aligning and working for change.
"McConnell's interest is in seeing if there is a role as a national funder of creating something of national importance and significance here that we could learn from in other parts of the country," he said.