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Jada McNeil, 5, runs under a parachute held up by Maria Falcon, left, and her mom Melissa McNeil, on June 18 2020. The two were taking part in a program offered by the Native Child and Family Services of Toronto.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

A new pilot program launched this week in Toronto parks aims to help Indigenous children and families who may be struggling with mental health and other issues brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is going to help us avoid a secondary pandemic of stunted physiological development and issues with mental health for kids,” says Dr. Jeffrey Schiffer, executive director of Native Child and Family Services of Toronto, the organization running the program.

Many of the face-to-face services the organization provides, such as daycare, have been shut down since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic more than three months ago. Numerous families who have found themselves unable to access services also lack access to green space, Dr. Schiffer says.

The program, described by Dr. Schiffer as “a trauma-informed land-based response to COVID,” sees an Indigenous family of up to four members who have been self-isolating meet with a member of the Native Child and Family Services of Toronto staff. Together, they will participate in a range of culturally specific activities, including Indigenous storytelling, singing Indigenous songs, arts and crafts, and physical activity for children such as strawberry hunts at three Toronto parks.

“There’s copious amounts of evidence that would tell us having children outdoors, engaging in physical activity, is good for their physical and mental health. And especially for Indigenous kids, the connection to land, and the ability to be with their family engaging in culturally appropriate and specific programming, is really fundamental,” says Dr. Barbara Fallon, a Canada Research Chair in child welfare and one of the program’s partners.

Dr. Steven Miller, head of the Centre for Brain and Mental Health at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and also one of the program’s partners, says the initiative will help to address many of the issues children are struggling with during the pandemic, including stress, anxiety and depression.

“This outdoor activity can help mitigate the unintended consequences of the COVID pandemic and support children’s mental health,” he says.

Melissa McNeil enrolled in the program to help her five-year-old daughter, Jada, connect with her culture over the summer.

“Part of our culture is we take our shoes off, we walk in the grass, we connect with Mother Earth. It helps us to recharge our mind, body and spirit,” Ms. McNeil says. “I’m so excited for her, because she loves the outdoors and she’s not able to go to camp this year.”

Jada “craves this knowledge” that she gets from Indigenous storytelling and songs, Ms. McNeil says.

Spending time in a park with other Indigenous families will be a great benefit to them both after months of isolation, she adds.

“I’m so excited to be with people,” Ms. McNeil says. “We’ve been cooped up in our house for so long.”

Data gathered from families over the course of the program will help provide the provincial government with information on how it may help Indigenous families and children living in other urban COVID-19 hotpots, Dr. Schiffer says.

It will also be valuable for helping Native Child and Family Services of Toronto understand how it may need to adjust its other programming during the pandemic. That may include mental-health programming the organization could provide virtually, or developing health and nutrition information to share online with the approximately 7,000 individuals throughout the Greater Toronto Area whom the organization serves.

“It’s very targeted mental-health support,” Dr. Schiffer says.

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