TThe Champion Centre came about through the vision of Dr. Patricia Champion who, in the late 1970’s, drew together key individuals who shared her ideas about child development and the rights of children with developmental disabilities. Together they managed to battle against prevailing notions of child development and intervention to create a new kind of early intervention service for New Zealand; one that still continues to lead best practice, not only nationally but internationally. It was not an easy road, but the value of the programme can be seen in the positive impact on the more than 2,000 children and their families who have accessed its services over the last 40 years.
The origins of the Champion Centre lie in the initial training Dr. Patricia Champion received in the mid-1960's at the Christchurch College of Education, the local teachers' training college. She trained as a speech therapist under the guidance of Dr. Jean Seabrook, an energetic and charismatic teacher who questioned every assumption and drew from a wide range of disciplines to understand how best to serve children's needs. She introduced Patricia to the idea of understanding human development in terms of the biological, psychological and social needs and capacities of the infant in a way that integrated perspectives from a range of disciplines. As Patricia says, 'Although we didn't understand it at the time, she [Jean Seabrook] was really using a psycho-biological model of development before anybody else used that term.'
After completing her speech therapy training and a BA in Education at the University of Canterbury, Patricia began to develop her skills in clinical practice with Jean Seabrook, as well as embarking on a master's degree in Education specialising in child development. This combination of practical work and study cemented her belief in the importance of ensuring reflective intervention in which theory and research informs practice and vice versa. During her master’s studies, Patricia focussed on the role of infant feeding in the development of mother-infant relationships, using both psycho-analytical and cognitive-developmental perspectives. This work formed a solid foundation when, some eight years later, she decided to pursue a PhD in Education with a focus on the development of the mother/child relationship when the child has Down syndrome. It was this work, which these days would be described as focussed on infant mental health, which led directly to the foundation of the early intervention programme which eventually became the Champion Centre.
At this point, Dr. Terry Caseley, who had been Patricia's own paediatrician when her two children were born, became part of the Champion Centre story. Patricia used her understanding of the work of developmental psychologists Uri Bronfenbrenner, Colwyn Trevarthen, and Jerome Bruner to persuade Dr. Caseley that the common practice at the time of institutionalising infants with Down syndrome was not serving the needs of either the children or their parents. She suggested that showing these parents how to facilitate their children's development might produce better long-term results. He agreed to be her sponsor at the hospital and to refer to her all the newborn babies with Down syndrome that he saw in his practice. This overt support from the medical establishment was critical in getting the ideas that underlie the Champion Centre accepted; and was a key counter to the prevailing attitude that children with Down syndrome ‘were seen as something less than human.'
A ground-breaking research project
Patricia’s doctoral research was based on ideas beginning to emerge in the United States that all children need the same things to develop, whether or not they have challenges to their development. And the key to everything is the quality of relationships that every child has with those who love and care for them. Fourteen Christchurch families agreed to take part in the research project and receive intervention from Patricia, with a control group being formed in Dunedin. The control group children were being raised by their parents (largely because residential care was not readily available in Dunedin), but did not receive formal intervention. Patricia's programme was offered to all the children with Down syndrome born during 1979 and 1980 in Christchurch.
Patricia began her relationship with the parents in the hospital as soon as a baby with Down syndrome was born. She and Dr. Caseley modelled to parents how they valued each infant and were there to provide support and information as parents began to come to terms with the turn their lives had taken. Following discharge from the hospital, infants and parents came once a week to rooms in the city made available through the Plunket network of infant and young child services. There, the Patricia provided speech and language therapy and Bunty Marshall provided physiotherapy. These two worked together in a way that evolved into the team approach that has formed the backbone of the early intervention model ever since. They also empowered the parents to be the children's first teachers, the other key feature of the Champion Centre model of intervention. The goal was (and still is) to respect the parents' experience with and knowledge of their child, show them how to use the techniques modelled and explained by the therapists, and to be as much a part of the intervention team as the 'professionals'. As the success of the intervention became known, it was through the families and friends of those families that word began to spread about this new way of raising children with Down syndrome in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
From research project to early intervention service
The research findings validated the approach Patricia had taken, so it was now important to find a way to continue the work. It needed funding and an organisational ‘home’ to continue. Terry Caseley explored the possibility of locating the programme within the Christchurch arm of the University of Otago Medical School. The mismatch, however, between the traditional medical school model and the holistic model that the Early Intervention Programme espoused proved to be insurmountable. Instead, despite philosophical differences, the programme found a home under the umbrella of the organisation now known as IHC, a nationwide organisation of support services for children with disabilities.
The next phase of development involved expanding the therapeutic team to include key players, including Jenny Gibbons and Jan Murphy. Jan, still Clinical Practice Manager, has had an enormous impact on the Champion Centre programme, particularly in setting up and guiding the services for children preparing for and transitioning into school. She brought not only a solid speech and language therapy training background, but at a point when such training was still staunchly behaviourist, an understanding of the importance of interpersonal relationships in language development. Her focus on relationships has not only impacted the way children's language development is approached in the Centre, but has also led the way in the family-centred practices of the whole programme.
Many therapists/specialists started as volunteers doing things like making tea for the specialists and parents; but as therapeutic needs were identified, they rose to the challenge and either educated themselves in what was needed (such as the use of computers for intervention developed by Hilary Stock), or exploited training and qualifications that they already possessed. As Patricia says, 'It was a very supportive small community of women who helped one another make it possible.' Gradually a new attitude towards disability became disseminated, with the parents of the children playing a vital role in spreading the word. They were the programme's strongest advocates.
In the early 1980's a new arm of the programme was added as the children from the original study were now old enough for preschool. Patricia was convinced that the best place for them was in a regular mainstream environment, but it was clear that simply placing these children in regular early childhood centres without facilitating the transition would be counter-productive. Christine Rietveld was hired to work with parents as they sought a situation that suited their child, and to work with the early childhood centres to educate them on the needs of the children. The programme also employed itinerant teachers to go into the early childhood centres with the children to help them integrate and help the centre staff make this possible. (These itinerant teachers were the first of the current national system of education support workers.)
The staff in many early childhood centres and kindergartens thought that children with Down syndrome were someone else's concern; and while they usually tolerated them, often did little to help them integrate. The model they employed was an 'expert' one, in which the staff knew best and parents were not part of the picture. This was often very distressing for parents, as they saw with renewed clarity how different their child was, and felt powerless to help others see just how much their child could do, and how far they had come. An exception to the rule was a Playcentre located close to the Plunket Rooms where the programme had started. The key player there was Marjorie Abrahamson whose academic training and strong social justice convictions meant that she both shared the aspirations of the Early Intervention Programme for the children and was able to extend the work done in the Early Intervention Programme when the children started attending Playcentre. Although Playcentre philosophy is that children will learn by themselves given the right environment, Marjorie shared the Early Intervention Programme stance that learning for children with disabilities must be facilitated if they are to reach their full potential. Marjorie brought that perspective when she decided to join the Programme herself and became the senior early intervention teacher. At this time, several other key clinicians joined the programme through connections with this particular Playcentre, including Gae Cherry, a trained teacher of the deaf and an early intervention teacher, and Helen Watkins, who became senior physiotherapist and clinical manager.
At this point, the programme began to serve children with a wider range of developmental challenges, and by the mid 1980's the programme was recognisably what it is today. However, the children with Down syndrome were still paving the way. As the first group grew closer to primary school age the challenge was to integrate them into their local schools, despite the lack of training of teachers and the often unwelcoming culture of most schools at the time. Here the Education Support Workers played, and still play, a key role in the transitioning of children into school, along with their in-centre colleagues. And settling the first group into school gave all parents the hope that their children could be successfully integrated into school.
The Christchurch Early Intervention Trust – The Champion Centre/Tamariki Toiora
Eventually the programme was ready to go it alone. The parents and clinicians together decided to form the independent Christchurch Early Intervention Trust which still governs the Champion Centre. Key players in this stage of development, in addition to Terry Caseley, were Nick Brown, Graeme McNally, Peter Champion, and most particularly, Neil Cherry, whose dedication to supporting the Centre made him a force to be reckoned with. Since becoming independent, the Christchurch Early Intervention Trust has continued to serve children with a variety of disabilities, adding in the 1990's a new distinctly recognisable population: those born prematurely. Maturity as an organisation has also seen an increase in the number of research projects carried out in the context of the Champion Centre. Some of these studies have been practical, with a focus on the efficacy of particular aspects of intervention offered at the Centre. Others have been more fundamental, using Champion Centre children to better understand important aspects of development in all children. The Champion Centre is in a unique position for research, able to adopt positions and approaches which frequently straddle the divide between medical and educational models, and it endeavours to contribute positively to integrating perspectives.
With each new addition to the programme the pressure of finding room for all the programmes grew. Prior to 2000 the Christchurch Early Intervention Trust operated from various different locations over time, including the Christchurch College of Education, Glenmoor School, and Ward 4 of Burwood Hospital. Each had its advantages and disadvantages, but none were truly the programme's home. Finally, with the help and support of Professor Alan Clarke, the programme moved to the ground floor of the disused nurses’ home on the campus of Burwood Hospital. With this move, the home of the programme was officially named The Champion Centre and was gifted the name of Tamariki Toiora by Ngai tahu when it was opened on February 21st 2002 by The Honourable Roger McClay, Commissioner for Children.
Independence has not always been easy, and there have been several occasions when it looked as if the ship would sink financially. Only the dedication of staff, willing at times to work without pay, and still underpaid in relation to market rates, kept it afloat. And although there is now greater understanding of the Champion Centre by government agencies, the gap between government grants and programme costs is still considerable, requiring active marketing and fund-raising. However, for all the changes the organisation has gone through, it is still a community of people who care passionately about what they do and who believe that every child has the right to be educated and to reach their full potential.