At the weekly Tuesday meeting of The Rotary Club of Picton, Jane Wollenberg from Reaching for Rainbows spoke of the program to the club via Zoom due to weather conditions.
With the program having been established in 2011, Wollenberg has been with Reaching for Rainbows for nearly its entire lifespan, serving in several capacities.
She was the program director for three years and the curriculum support and mentor for three years. In 2021, she stepped took on the role of Chair for the departing Lynn Donovan.
“It’s given me the opportunity to understand and contribute to the organization in many ways,” said Wollenberg ofer her many roles. “By far, with the exception of being the director where I worked with the girls and their families, being an ambassador for the program is something I really love to do. I love sharing our story, its successes and challenges and especially the goals and projects we aspire to do.”
As explained on the Reaching for Rainbows website, Rainbows welcomes and embraces the little girls of the PEC community who are most in need of a place to find friends, empower themselves and develop a sense of belonging.
Their warm space is set up with thoughtfully selected materials and equipment to help spark curiosity and interest. This promotes an atmosphere where the children can learn through play, while gently being guided by Rainbows skilled and passionate team of staff and volunteers.
Wollenberg offered a too common scenario in Prince Edward County.
A place of beauty and splendour, there are families living in the cracks and margins of this wonderful locale and Reaching for Rainbows provides sustenance and safety for the body and the mind of adolescent County girls.
“Imagine this, a little girl wakes up on a school morning, she hasn’t slept well because she was hungry when she went to bed and she was worried about the homework she wasn’t able to complete and the family, a single parent mom at leadership, has just found out that one of her children is in trouble with the law,” Wollenberg said. “She looks around for the clothes she’s going to wear to school and sees that she’s going to have to wear the same clothing that she wore yesterday and perhaps its a little bit dirty, in need of repair, probably a hand-me-down and a little bit shabby. She goes into the kitchen and breakfast is a bowl of cereal with some milk and she’s not sure what she’s going to put in her lunch box because the ODSP cheque or the food bank supplies have just about run out and the family is now rationing food.”
“The school bus comes and she’s been waiting outside in the weather that’s getting cold, without gloves or snow pants, her jacket doesn’t do up and her boots aren’t very warm. She finally climbs on to the bus, she’s relieved because its warm, but she’s also wary because there are children on the bus who tease and bully her. She arrives at school and when she gets into that classroom, the challenges of trying to keep up just completely overwhelm her. Lunch is a disappointment because she doesn’t have much to eat, and recess is always a challenge because she has difficulty making friends. The school day finally ends and she gets on the bus to go to Reaching for Rainbows. She probably has been thinking about this all day. Finally she arrives at St. Andrews and standing there to greet her with warm smiles, careful listening, and if she would like there is a hug. Karen and Kelly the program directors and three or four volunteers are there to help them with their afternoon. Either she heaves a huge sigh of relief, or she collapses or she explodes, sharing all of the challenges she has kept inside for the past 24 hours or longer,” Added Wollenberg. “Rainbows is a safe place to go, to let go of the stress an frustration and she will be comforted by a professional staff and volunteers who will guide her to relax and to breath and who will take the time she needs to regain her composure and to recognize that she is in a place where she can let the calm, positive energy sooth her. She will be offered opportunities to help her choose the path for the next two hours, one that certainly will bring her relief, joy and a lot of fun.
Wollenberg added that group organizers have been told by parents and teachers that this scenario represents a real day in the lives of girls taking part in the program. And sometimes the knowledge that it’s a Rainbows day helps motivate some to attend school.
As for intake, Reaching for Rainbows girls are recommended to them through local schools and programs, Community Living and recommendations from within the community.
“The girls are referred to us by the schools in Picton, Community Living and other agencies,” stated Wollenberg. “And as our director shared with me recently, sometimes self referral, this is especially meaningful to us because it tells us our program is reaching the families and people we want it to organically.”
Currently Rainbows welcomes 30 girls ages 6-9 each year from two schools in Picton, PECI and St. Gregory’s. Program attendees are transported to the program by bus.
“There are 15 girls in our younger group and 15 girls in the older group attend the program,” Wollenberg said. “They remain with us in most cases for the full four years, our calm, kind and skillful director and her assistant and volunteers apply the concept of resiliency to affect change in their lives. At Reaching for Rainbows we provide a safe space with dedicated volunteer for girls to find friendship, belonging and particularly a sense of self. In some ways it seems difficult to imagine that there could be such a need here in PEC. The perceptions of our community represent an idilic place to visit, to live, raise a family and it is, for some. For many families who are struggling among us this is just simply not the case, and given the pandemic and the effects of the struggling economy, on the lower income citizens of our community existing hardship has been exacerbated. Many of the people most affected are our families and their daughters are our girls.”
Initially Reaching for Rainbows operated under the auspice of St. Andrews Church in Picton. For nearly a decade, the facility and most administrative responsibilities were generously managed by the Circle of Friends at St. Andrews.
“The program was run by a small but mighty steering committee,” stated Wollenberg. “When we decided that it was time to grow up and become an independent group, we decided to launch Rainbows out on our own and became this non-profit in 2019. St. Andrews was re-envisioning itself as well at this time and it seemed like the right time to become more independent. While we are still a part of their Circle of Friends and is such the program operates in the beautiful space located in the basement of the church. We have assumed the full responsibility for running the program, and it’s not a small feat for a small organization like ours.”
The program is offered two afternoons a week. The older girls attend on Monday and Tuesday, the younger girls on Wednesday and Thursday.
“The heart of our program though is our staff and volunteers, some of whom have been with us for many years,” Wollenberg said to Picton Rotary. “It’s so inspiring to witness the commitment, the talents, the passion revealed as they interact with the girls. Mutually engaged in activities, listening, observing, uninterrupted and focussed where these conversations could either break your heart or at other times cause you to laugh out loud. So varied are their life experiences and their reactions to them. Our volunteers are a group of amazing, amazing people. Retired teachers, nurses, IT specialists, social workers, empty nesters, writers, young women who own businesses and so many more. Often retired people who are already working in other areas in the community. Were able to run the program with two staff because of our volunteers, and were always looking for more.”
Wollenberg pointed out that one of the most important aspects of the program are its routines and dependability.
“Many of the girls lives are unpredictable and chaotic,” expressed Wollenberg. “They are not able to control the outcomes in their lives or make decisions. These complicated families and the ensuing challenges mean that life can be very different from day-to-day. There are girls in the program who are missing a parent because he or she is incarcerated, there are people who are experiencing grief because a parent is unwell or dying, and we have parents who are just separated. Sometimes parents aren’t even in a position to look after their children so they live with their grandparents or their guardians.”
Another important part of the program is snack time.
“Snack is a very important part of the program for a few reasons,” Wollenberg said. “As the statistics in the reports we have read indicate, and the girls will attest to, food, especially nutritious food is very scarce in their lives at times. We provide a nutritious snack each afternoon and try and incorporate their likes and dislikes in our menu planning. The snack tables are beautifully set with tablecloths arranged in a circle to facilitate conversations among the girls and the volunteers. We also encourage them to appreciate and enjoy their food. Many of them are really hungry and will happily sit at the table and chat and eat long after others have left. It’s at this time we do a lot of listening and learning about the girls and this informs the planning and interactions we will have during the afternoon. It is also at this time that we begin to help them develop the process of decision making through things as simple as what they are going to do, who they are going to play with, what they are going to choose to use and wether they’re going to play alone or with somebody else.”
The playroom is part of Reaching for Rainbows programming. Its bright, open, welcoming, organized and accessible.
“I think our success can be attributed to the fact we identify a small group of little girls and begin a four year relationship with them,” said Wollenberg. “And in this relationship we concentrate on building the relationship, empowering them to imagine themselves achieving success and using their own unique gifts and talents. This increases their sense of belonging both at Reaching for Rainbows and in their wider lives. The things we do with the girls in our program isn’t magic, but sometimes it does feel magical. The playroom is their special place with interesting and changing centres ranging from a higher energy hopscotch carpet, to a creative art studio supported by some of our artists volunteers to a cozy reading corner. One of our valued partnership is with County Kids Read and one of their volunteers brings us books selected upon the recommendation of Karen, our program director. Although the girls are free to select whatever they wish to do each afternoon, the playroom is setup to facilitate the goals of the program, building relationships, encouraging powerful identities and building a sense of belonging and resilience. We try and capture their interests and address their concerns whenever they arrive. Every space in the room offers them opportunities to make choices and decisions autonomously about activities and materials. The only expectation is they take care of the materials and return them to their homes after they use them to be sure they are ready for the next girl to use.”
Reaching for Rainbows is accredited by the Ministry of Education under the Childcare and Youth act. This standing with the Ministry allows Rainbows to seek funding in kind and support from formal organizations like Community Living, Prince Edward Lennox and Addington Social Services (PELASS), and other related places. It also adds a great deal of administrative work to their staff and board.
“We know were making a difference in the lives of these girls who attend Reaching for Rainbows,” Wollenberg expressed. “We see and hear about the ways that this happens everyday in the program and observing through them, listening to them, hearing from their parents, teachers and so many others in the community. Testimonials provide us with valuable information and opportunities to evaluate our program. We will always provide the skillful, purposeful staff and volunteer leadership and specialized programming to meet their individual needs. But as we reflect upon where we’ve been were also keenly aware of where we want to be. In the coming months we will be engaging a strategic planning specialist to support us in developing a three year strategic plan. This is the confidence we feel now, we’ve been a non-profit for a little while and its time for us to take steps to grow up. Rainbows 2.0 is what were calling it, in a way.”
For more information on Reaching for Rainbows please visit https://reachingforrainbows.com/