FASD program in Waterloo region grabs provincial attention

The Reach For It program in Waterloo region offers support to children, teens and caregivers coping with the effects of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. That program has caught the attention of policymakers at Queen's Park.

People behind Reach For It program to show it off at Queen’s Park

Special Constable John Heaton and Matthew Colombo work together to find traffic signs at the Children's Safety Village in Cambridge back in 2014. The event was Boys Unplugged and it was part of the Reach For It program, which helps children, youth and caregivers who are affected by fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

A program that helps youth and families in Waterloo region deal with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is receiving provincial attention.

The program, Reach For It, was started in 2013 by Lisa Colombo of Elmira after she went to the local police detachment to see if an officer could mentor her son.

Now, four years later, the program has offered nearly 50 different activities to help children and youth and also provide a connection for caregivers.

"It's very innovative," Colombo told The Morning Edition host Craig Norris Tuesday. "There's nothing like this anywhere in Ontario or Canada, so it's very groundbreaking."

Queen's Park meeting

Now, the program has caught the attention of the province.

Colombo, and others who are behind Reach For It, will be going to Queen's Park May 29 to meet with MPPs and staff for about an hour to discuss what they do through the program.

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Then, staff with the Ministry of Children and Youth Services will visit Waterloo region this summer to observe some of the programming, which ranges from outdoor activities to cooking to woodworking.

The interest comes as the provincial government pledged in the 2017 budget to $26 million over four years to expand support for those affected by FASD. That funding includes creating training resources, creating more support worker positions, building support networks and increasing access to FASD initiatives developed by Indigenous partners.
Lisa Colombo started the Reach For It program to help children, youth and caregivers coping with the effects of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

FASD is a brain injury

FASD is a brain injury creates a range of challenges for a person if their mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. It can include physical, mental, behavioural and learning disabilities.

In Canada, fetal alcohol syndrome, which falls under the FASD umbrella term, is estimated to occur at a rate of one to two per 1,000 live births, the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Ontario Network of Enterprise reports on its website.

FASD rates, however, are less clear. A 2003 report from Health Canada's framework for action on FASD said the rate is estimated at nine in 1,000 births.

Program is for caregivers, too

"Locally, what's inspiring is the money will be there to support families, children and youth living with FASD," Colombo said.

Children as young as four can take part in the Reach For It program. They have a police officer as a mentor and are invited to take part in any of the activities, at their own pace.

Colombo said the goal of the program isn't to judge, but instead, focuses on helping youth and their families deal with what they're facing.

Colombo said many of the children are also being raised by caregivers who might not be their biological parents – in some cases "very dedicated grandparents, aunts and uncles."

The Reach For It program also helps them.

"We're enabling the kids to have a chance to connect with others in the community, but also the caregivers stay on site and they have a chance to make those connections but also, I think, which is so important, they feel listened to, they feel part of something else," she said.