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Vive le French-Australian Preschool!

Amanda Whitley

The world is reeling in the aftermath of the Nice attack in which 84 people were killed.

It is true that there are other places around the world — Istanbul, Baghdad, Aktobe, Ghandoura, Yemen, Dhaka and more — that have also experienced terrorism over the past month, but for our family the Bastille Day atrocity hits very close to home.

When our eldest daughter Olivia was about a year old, a friend (who was a nanny at the time) encouraged us to attend the French-Australian Preschool (FAPS) Open Day, saying what a great centre it was. We did, and promptly put her name down, encouraged by the opportunity it would give her to grow up bilingual.

When we received Olivia’s offer of a place a couple of years later, we’d almost forgotten we’d registered – she’d been attending a local childcare centre for a couple of years and seemed to really enjoy it, but after a lot of thinking and talking, we decided to take the plunge and enrol her in this not-for-profit preschool and child care centre offering progressive immersion in French language and culture for children between three and five years of age. It was one of the best decisions we ever made.

‘Why do your girls go to a French school?’

It’s the most common question my husband and I get asked, and it’s a fair one. My French isn’t great, and it’s a running joke in our family that my husband only knows enough language to ask ‘where is the toilet, please?’. Homework is hard for everyone, and it’s important the girls have access to extra language resources to make up for what we can’t provide.

They go to a public French-speaking school because of the opportunities it will open up to them as adults, and because of the amazing people we have met since becoming part of the FAPS community back in 2010.

FAPS is the antithesis to the bright, new and shiny childcare centre both our girls attended in their early years. The building itself has seen better days — it was constructed in the 1960s and is in original condition, with little to no substantial improvements since it was established — but there’s something special about it.

Both our daughters were stimulated by the structured learning and thrived in their immersion into the French language and culture. The staff were loving and attentive and, as we soon discovered, the five-day-per-week ‘school hours’ program saw the children build incredibly close bonds with their teachers and each other.

Our youngest daughter Sophia fell in love with Valerie Forner, who has been teaching at the school for several decades (some of Sophia’s friends parents were taught by her!) and every Friday afternoon Valerie would send her home with a little doll that had been her’s as a child. ‘She just loves it!’, Valerie said. And she did. Sophia would sleep with it and carry her with her all weekend, until it was time to return it on Monday morning. When she graduated in 2013, Valerie gave her the doll to keep, and Sophia has treasured it since.

There are many similar stories, about how FAPS is more than an early education centre, and how it has provided so many families with a bond that persists. Olivia is now in Year Four at Telopea Park School and she has known many of her school friends since they were three-years-old. There is an amazing sense of community among parents, which began in the preschool years and will endure throughout the kids’ education.

At ages 10 and ‘nearly-eight’, our girls are fluent French speakers and their written language skills are also pretty formidable. It blows my mind. And it all started with FAPS.

But there’s a problem.

It has been an integral part of Canberra’s multilingual community for nearly 40 years, but now FAPS desperately needs funds to renovate its building to ensure its future. You see, those buildings I described earlier are no longer compliant with standards for early childhood education in Australia, and the preschool needs to urgently raise $1 million so that it can undertake essential renovations.

The preschool has developed a comprehensive set of plans which will bring the buildings up to current standards and ensure it can continue to operate into the future; however, the initial cost estimate for undertaking this building project shows that to complete phase one it will cost at least $2.5 million and phase two is another $1 million.

“The preschool can raise $1.5 million through a bank loan, but that will leave us at least $1 million short on commencing phase one of the building work,” said Véronique Danjou, Director of the preschool.

How you can help

The Preschool is appealing to the Canberra community for help and is launching a fundraising campaign, including gifting bricks through donations, partnership opportunities and community events. Supported by the French Embassy, the preschool is holding a Soirée at the French Ambassador’s Residence this Wednesday 20 July — I’m guest speaker and it will be a great evening of drinks, canapés and music.

FAPS isn’t just for Canberra’s French community, it’s for everyone, and it’s a wonderful way to promote a continuing connection and solidarity between our cultures. Please help us save it. Tickets to the Soirée are available from www.eventbrite.com.au.

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Amanda Whitley

Amanda Whitley is the founder and director of HerCanberra. In her 'spare time', she instructs zumba, loves to cook (and eat), and wrangles two gorgeous little girls. She's done everything from present the tv news to operate a stop and go sign and is passionate about connecting Canberra women. More about the Author

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