‘We want Surrey to be a champion for inclusion, where every child feels welcome’: Tom Gill

Tom Gill
Photo: Surrey First

SURREY First mayoral candidate Tom Gill says he wants to expand his city’s efforts to make sure Surrey’s 1,600 children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) feel at home in Surrey’s parks, pools, rinks and community centres. This summer, Surrey introduced “Sensory Friendly Spaces” at public events and has provided training to 100 of its recreational centre staff.

“I want Surrey to lead the country in inclusivity, particularly for our children,” said Gill on Tuesday. “Here in Surrey we’ve made a terrific start, but I want to take it further faster. Our Surrey First team wants to see another 500 of our parks, rec and library staff trained by June of next year, offer training to the more than 3,500 soccer, baseball, hockey and football coaches in our city, and pilot a Snoezelen sensory room in our new Clayton Community Centre which is under construction and set to open in summer 2020.”

Developed in Holland nearly 40 years ago, the Snoezelen (“explore and relax”) sensory rooms use sound, light, colour and texture to provide a multi-sensory experience for children with autism. Gill said he wants the pilot room to be a template for other Snoezelen rooms.

Gill said he wants to work with organizations such as the Canucks Autism Network and Pacific Autism Family Network to become a “champion for inclusion” that ensures children with autism and their families feel welcome and included.

“Our parks, pools, rinks and community centres are second to none and that goes for our staff as well,” said Gill. “Training and awareness are key to making children feel included, so I want to make sure our city staff are trained, and I want to offer that same training and information to our city’s incredible volunteer coaches right across Surrey.”

Surrey First council candidate Trevor Halford said “building confidence and life skills” in children starts with feeling accepted and included.

“Feeling understood and accepted is important for these kids, but it’s equally important for their parents,” said Halford, a local soccer coach whose family has a personal connection to ASD. “Putting our pools, rinks, playing fields and community centres to work on behalf of these 1,600 Surrey children and their families is an important part of helping them feel included, and that starts by training as many of our city staff as possible about autism, removing the stigma, and making sure every child feels welcome. Including our city’s coaches is a terrific addition that will also help raise awareness right across our community.”

Wendy Lisogar-Cocchia, who founded the Pacific Autism Family Network with her husband Sergio Cocchia, said Gill’s commitment to making his city more inclusive says a lot about Surrey.

“Parents who have children with autism are always looking for community leaders who want to help,” said Lisogar-Cocchia. “For a city to step up and say they want to make sure every child is included is wonderful, and something Surrey should be proud of. Today, one in 66 children aged five to 17 is diagnosed with autism, and it is four times more common in boys than girls. It’s something that touches not just the 1,600 children in Surrey, but also their families and extended families. So, knowing you have someone on your side is a great feeling. Surrey has been a tremendous leader and a wonderful partner with the Pacific Autism Network in the training of first responders and we’re looking forward to doing even more in the months and years ahead.”

Katy Harandi, President of the Canucks Autism Network, said training city staff and local coaches will go a long way to helping people better understand children with autism and what they and their parents need to feel part of their own community.

“At Canucks Autism Network, we are committed to increasing inclusion and promoting accessibility through training and awareness initiatives,” said Harandi. “We are proud of our partnership with the City of Surrey and look forward to building on our existing relationship by providing additional autism training to the sports and recreation sector and beyond. Our ultimate goal is for every individual with autism to be understood, accepted and supported in all community spaces and this training in Surrey will mark an important step in this direction.”

Carmen Zajac, President of the Zajac Ranch for Children said Gill’s commitment shows how important it is to feel included in a community.

“The Zajac Ranch and our summer camp programs have been helping children and their families for 15 years and we know how important it is for every child to feel accepted and included,” said Zajac. “Giving staff at the City of Surrey the training and coaching they need to make sure city facilities are as inclusive as possible is a wonderful idea and something every parent wants for their child.”

Gill said Surrey is “about every family” and that means making sure everyone feels included.

“When you look around our city, you know we are definitely a city for families. We have 300 new families moving to Surrey every month. They like what they see here and I want to make sure everyone feels at home and connected.”