Vicki Schwean would be happy with one. But she knows it will be many, many more than that.
“If just one kid comes out of here a whole lot healthier, with much more promise for the future, then that would be awesome,” said Schwean, Dean of Western’s Faculty of Education. “But it won’t be just one – there will be thousands of kids.”
On Thursday, Western announced the opening of the Mary J. Wright Research and Education Centre at Merrymount, a partnership between the university and Merrymount Family Support and Crisis Centre. The new centre will focus on interdisciplinary research that examines factors influencing early childhood development, with the goal of bettering the health and wellbeing of society’s most vulnerable children.
“This is one of the proudest moments of my life. We don’t put enough emphasis on the need to ensure our children thrive and flourish. There are so many children in this country today – in this city today – that live in circumstances that compromise their wellbeing,” Schwean continued. “We’re going to work together through this new centre to take our understandings and translate those into evidence-base strategies that can give these kids hope.
“If I have a legacy, I hope this is it.”
Due to open in January, the centre will serve as a bridge between a team of researchers from Education, Science, Social Science and Health Sciences and the community members who can benefit most from their work across three signature areas of research:
- Environmental effects on brain development. The centre will investigate the impact of early adversity on the development of brain functioning and develop interventions that will help prevent children who have experienced traumatic circumstances from developing lifelong disabilities;
- Cognition, language, literacy and numeracy. The centre will improve identification and understanding of general and specific learning disabilities in math, reading and oral language, and provide strong evidence for versatile and customizable interventions that lead to improved outcomes for children; and
- Social, Emotional and Behavioural Resiliency and Well-Being. The centre will examine the patterns and causes of social, emotional and behavioral challenges in preschool children and link those findings to interventions that support the well-being of those children and their families.
The centre will also work to train the next generation of developmental researchers and professionals through graduate student practicums and internships, and build capacity within the local community by sharing their knowledge with professionals who deliver children’s services.
“Hosting this type of innovative work directly in the community is key to its success,” said Ailene Wittstein, Executive Director of Merrymount. “We will be able to not only implement the results of this ground-breaking work almost immediately, but to gauge its success and work jointly with the researchers to identify and develop new areas of research for the future.”
Schwean said the centre has been purposefully located at Merrymount due to that organization’s long-standing history of working with the community.
“When I first came here, I wanted to know this community and what it did with kids. In the process, I met just about every person who was in an agency and worked with children and I had the opportunity to visit Merrymount,” she said. “It was there my heart just burst – this wonderful place.”
Around that time, Wittstein was looking for a “game-changing opportunity” for Merrymount and the community. Schwean knew the fit immediately.
“’Right here,’ I thought. ‘Right here is where Mary Wright needs to be,’” Schwean said. “It is in just the right place – where kids and families and professionals feel safe.”
Established in 1874, Merrymount started as the Protestant Home for Orphans, Aged and Friendless. When the child welfare system took responsibility for the wardship of orphans in the 1890s, the home began to focus on residential care for children of families in crisis or transition. A new home was built as a Centennial Project in 1967. The name Merrymount was adopted at that time to reflect its non-denominational approach.
Today, Merrymount, located at 1064 Colborne St. in London, assists the more than 8,000 families and children who use the facility every year.
The new facility will carry on the legacy of one of the university’s most influential researchers – Western Psychology professor Mary J. Wright.
“This carries on her legacy in a real way and reignites that vision she had in a new way,” Schwean said. “I think she would be extremely proud of it.”
In June, Western closed the Mary J. Wright University Laboratory School with an eye toward a new opportunity to benefit children in the London community and build on the legacy of the school’s legendary namesake.
Wright established the University Laboratory School at Western in 1973.
At a time when the value of preschool education was being questioned in the United States, because of the Head Start program, Wright pioneered the University of Western Ontario Preschool Project, which was directly aimed at children from low-income families. The purpose of the school was to conduct child research and teaching demonstrations for the Department of Psychology. The school was also used to try out experimental teaching methods.
Wright, “den mother to a generation of psychologists,” served as the school’s director until 1980, when she retired. In 1983, Wright published a book outlining the design and principles behind the lab school, as well as a summary of its research. In 2001, the innovative laboratory preschool was renamed the Mary J. Wright University Lab School in honour of her work and a $500,000 donation she made to Campaign Western.
Wright died in May 2014 at the age of 98.
Her family has been involved in the development of the new centre.
“This centre is going to focus on research, capacity building (teaching the community itself about the interventions we find effective) and training the next generation of workers in the field of childhood education,” Schwean said. “This centre is located in London. So, who should benefit first and foremost? The children who come to Merrymount and other development centres in London. But we are also going to take these findings throughout the country and throughout the world.”