When Julie Ratsavong was just five years old her family moved to Guelph from Laos.
“When we first moved here I didn’t even know that English existed,” said Ratsavong. “We were the only Laotian family here, so there was really no one else to lean on.”
Her family moved to Guelph and she became enrolled in Shelldale Public School. It didn’t take long for the children in her family to begin attending the Onward Willow Better beginnings, Better Futures organization, which was at that time held in a nearby building.
“We started going to breakfast club and they engages us into coming to more of the after school programs — which was nice because my parents worked later than when school was out,” said Ratsavong.
Now 27 years old, Ratsavong is a registered practical nurse by trade, but still comes back to volunteer at what is now called the Shelldale Family Gateway, which moved years ago into her old elementary school.
“I consider Shelldale to be my second home,” she said.
Shelldale Family Gateway has evolved in many ways over the years. Currently it hosts an EarlyOn Child and Family Centre for children up to age six. Its school-age programs include a breakfast club, leadership programs, an art program and a teen drop-in, among others.
Ratsavong is one of a number of people who was interviewed for a new book on the Shelldale Better Beginnings, Better Futures program in Guelph, called Realizing the Dream.
The book brings together stories of the people who organized the creation of the centre with kids who have come through it over its 27 year history.
Lorie Delane works at Shelldale Family Gateway as family community development and youth program coordinator. She would like to see the book used in college and university programs that focus on social work or community development.
The book recounts the creation of the Better Beginnings, Better Futures program in eight high-risk communities across the province in 1991. When the program was shuttered years later, the community in Guelph came together to save the programming in the Onward Willow neighbourhood, eventually creating the Shelldale Family Gateway.
“This community kept working to build a plan and make petitions and they ended up receiving the money,” said Delane.
The book itself was a five-year endeavour, in which writer and editor Krysia P. Lear collected interviews, minutes from public meetings and research by U of G professors into one cohesive tome.
“We are just really proud of it because it talks about the work we are doing,” said Delane. “The first few chapters are how and why and who and the rest is stories entwined with some of the theory.”
Delane said over the years, thousands of youth have come through the doors at Shelldale.
“The crazy part is that they come back,” said Delane. “Now as adults they are participating in our EarlyOn programs or Public Health programs for new moms.”
Ratsavong is one of those former Shelldale kids who keeps coming back. She became a volunteer, sat on its youth council and eventually came back to run the summer camps.
Now Ratsavong regularly volunteers and says she sometimes sees her five-year-old self when helping newcomer kids.
“I always come back because I want to give that back to the youth here,” said Ratsavong. “In this neighbourhood we still have a lot of newcomers and they probably need the support now just as much as I did then.”
Realizing the Dream is available for sale at Shelldale Family Gateway and will soon be available for sale online.