CEO blog: Improving access to health care in Nanaimo

This article is part of a monthly blog series where Children’s Health Foundation’s CEO Veronica sits down with stakeholders and community leaders to gain insight into the challenges Island families face today and to shed light on the great work being done in the community.

This month, Veronica spent some time getting to know Amber Bruner, the Early Years Healthy Start Fair Coordinator with the Greater Nanaimo Early Years Partnership.

Healthy Start Fairs are free one-stop-shop for families with children ages zero to six who can access health care resources, support, and services.

Amber has been part of the Nanaimo Early Years team for 10 years now and has worked on the fairs since day one — the very first Early Years Healthy Start Fair was held in February 2017.

Amber works with a team to help find the perfect venues for the fairs and to connect with service providers so each fair is full of great information, resources, and activities for families. When she’s not busy working to make sure Nanaimo families learn about all the health care resources available to them, she’s having fun with her son or teaching Zumba classes!

Veronica chatted with Amber to learn more about what why the Early Years Healthy Start Fairs were needed, how they are helping Nanaimo families with young children access essential health care, and why the free fairs are a fun, must-attend event for all Nanaimo families with kids ages zero to six.

How did you get involved with the Greater Nanaimo Early Years Partnership?

 Originally, I was a participant in the Mother Goose program with my son when he was very little. Being part of that program inspired me to get involved. As a mom, I knew what it was like to try and learn about all the programs that were happening in Nanaimo. While I was trying to navigate that system, I thought it would be great to help other families!

If a Nanaimo family had never heard of the Early Years Healthy Start Fairs, how would you explain what they are?

At the fairs, parents can access information and resources, sign up for programs, or get health screenings for their kids. All of the different service providers bring a ‘value added’ component to their table. A good example would be the nurses. When they come to the fairs, they bring their computers and can see if your child is up to date with their immunizations. If your child isn’t, then they have a special clinic that week just for those families that attended the fair. Another example is vision screening. Your child gets their eyes screened and the print-out results will tell you if a referral to an eye doctor is necessary.

 We work with providers like Partners In Parenting, The Boys & Girls Club, Kwumut-lelum Child and Family Services, PacificCARE, Nanaimo Child Development Centre, and others. When families check in, they get a bag and a passport. Then they go around to each service provider and get their passport stamped as they chat with each of them, getting info and resources.

 And for the kids, there’s face painting, a photographer, colouring, playdough, obstacle courses, games — there’s so much to do! We just try to make it a super fun, energetic atmosphere.

They sound educational and fun! How often do they run?

We hold the fairs approximately every two and a half months. We’ve held them in different locations including the Boys & Girls Club, the Hope Centre on Gabriola Island, schools in Nanaimo, and malls. When picking a venue, we make sure it’s accessible for parents and the venue is appropriate for various health screenings. For example, if we’re doing hearing screenings, we have to have a quiet place to do that.

Why were the Early Years Healthy Start Fairs launched? Did they fill a gap in health care the community needed?

 We did a big parent survey to see what they needed. We found that parents thought there were tons of really great resources and services in Nanaimo, but they didn’t know where to find them or how to find them. So we built the Nanaimo Early Years website and we had a virtual hub with information. But we still didn’t have that one-on-one connection that’s needed or wanted. That’s when the idea of the fairs came up.

 Originally, we thought that we wanted to create a hub of services in one place. But when we looked at how spread out Nanaimo is, we found there’s no one prime place for a physical hub that would help all families in Nanaimo. So the idea came up of having a travelling road show, and going to the neighbourhoods of the families instead of expecting the families to come to us.

 Our first fair was in February 2017 and Monday, June 24 will be our 15th fair!

What a great idea to go directly to the families. You’re making it easy for families to access what they asked for.

Exactly. And that’s how we get to different families — we go to many different locations so that we’re not reaching the same families each time. We also make sure that we do the fairs at different times of day and on different days of the week. We know parents’ schedules can be crazy and that everybody is different, so we make sure we are always changing things up so that we can reach new families.

How do you think these fairs are helping Island families?

Every fair, probably 50 parents say to us that there’s no other way they would have been able to access all these resources with a small child. But they come to one fair, connect with 30 providers, and get all this help. It makes them feel so supported, which is amazing.

 We also collect stats and know that we still have a huge percentage of families that are hearing about services for the first time. There are still many families to reach.

That really highlights the great work you’re doing to help families! Why do you think we all need to keep working together to ensure Island families get the health care they need?

Oh, it’s beyond important for this to happen! There’s no other model like the Early Years Healthy Start Fairs out there in our community. Without the fairs, if a family needs the support, they would have to find it themselves — and sometimes they don’t even know they need a service until they start chatting with a provider at our fair. It’s just such a great one-stop-shop resource for families. And our work is never finished! There are always new families, new service providers, and new programs.

The next Healthy Start Fair is Monday June 24 at the Nanaimo Child Development Centre. For more information on this event, or the Greater Nanaimo Early Years Partnership, visit

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