Tucked behind the screens of trees along the highway and dotted throughout the dark and empty ski cabins nestled in the valley there's a vibrant bustling town of almost 10,000 residents living in Whistler. That's not something most tourists are thinking about when they come to visit. But the locals know. They know Whistler isn't just a ski town. They know that it's a community that more than 2,000 families call home, where there are enough kids to fill three elementary schools and one high school.
In many ways, the families who live here get the best of both worlds - living in a place with a small town feel with many of the amenities of the big city - Meadow Park Sports Centre, immaculate sports fields and tennis courts, the Valley Trail, state of the art mountain biking and skiing and concerts galore.
But there's no such thing as a perfect place to live, and Whistler is no exception. Raising a family in Whistler has its challenges, beyond the obvious one of the cost of living. With the strong emphasis on sports, arts and culture opportunities can be more difficult to come by. But they are there; you just have to look for them, maybe work a little harder to get them, and sometimes create your own.
Long-time resident Susie Howe feels that people living in Whistler today don't have much to complain about. She moved to the valley in 1980 and had the first of her three children in 1982. At the time, there was very little for families or kids in Whistler.
"There was no comfort level," says Howe. "You had to work for your kids to make things happen."
All the same, she remembers that time fondly, despite some of the challenges of small town life.
"I loved raising my kids in Tapley's Farm. We were all new moms and we really relied on each other."
If they wanted an opportunity for their children, they had to create it. Gymnastics? They found a space and created a club led by local moms. Swimming? The moms convinced the owner of JB's (now Roland's Pub) to let them use the pool. Summer camp? When parents asked for a summer program for their children, Howe and fellow teacher Sue Christopher created Camp Rainshine, a place for kids to do arts, crafts and physical activity.
The pioneering spirit shown by parents in the '80s is still alive and well today. Rather than complain about what's not available, there are many parents out there who either seek out and take advantage of whatever comes up or decide to fill a niche by starting their own organization or business.
Layna Mawson is one of those people. Through her tutelage at Orkidz Art Studio, kids learn to draw, paint and sculpt in a gentle, creative atmosphere. Although she is temporarily without studio space, she is still running programs out of her home, or bringing her projects to homes in the valley. Clearly there is a desire for this type of activity, as her programs have sold out for the summer. This fall her courses will include Pop Tart Art for parents and tots, and an after school program three times a week that includes pick up from any of the elementary schools in town.
In the meantime however, kids can still get a taste of her offerings at this weekend's Whistler Children's Art Festival, where she'll be leading two sessions each day on creating mosaic mirrors. Kids will learn how to work with tile and grout.
"After this they'll know how to tile their bathroom at home!" says Mawson.
Growth of the Whistler Children's Art Festival
It's hard to imagine that the first Whistler Children's Art Festival began almost 30 years ago. It grew out of a group of moms just like Howe, who wanted to create artistic opportunities for their children. The first festival took place in 1983 and it has been an annual event ever since, with this year's event happening August 13 and 14 at Creekside.
The festival originally took place at Myrtle Philip Community Centre, with a focus on workshops led by emerging and professional artists and artisans. The priority was to give local children direct exposure to local artists and their crafts.
Over the years the festival has seen many changes. It was run as a volunteer event until 2002. That year the Whistler Arts Council hired professional staff that now put time toward the festival. It grew in scope again in 2005 when the event moved to Whistler Creekside. This year 3,500 kids and adults are expected to attend.
The Creekside location has brought more of an outdoor focus to the weekend event. Live performance has been incorporated to a much greater degree, with street performers, bands, musicians and magicians now making up half of the programming.
This year, kids can make Japanese fans, bear print T-shirts, crazy kites and fairy houses among a plethora of other workshops. For some of those workshops, pre-registration is necessary and parents can register on site from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Entertainment will include Kokoma, an African heritage dance and drum ensemble, children's performers The Kerplunks and Gogo Bonkers, and magician Sheldon Casavant.
Doti Niedermayer has been the executive director of the Whistler Arts Council (WAC) since 2002. She is particularly excited about this year's closing act, Ache Brasil, a capoeira performance group. And she says not to miss the augmented programming in the Whistler Olympic Plaza in the village that will be put on in conjunction with the festival.
Entry at the door is $8 for children, and parents' entry is by donation. The entry fee does not include all workshops but does include all the main stage shows, roaming performers, and free drop-in arts activities like patio stone making that will be ongoing throughout the day.
"You could hang out all day and have fun and never take a workshop," says Niedermayer.
The expansion of the Whistler Children's Arts Festival is just one example of how life in Whistler has changed for families since Howe moved here in 1980. Life in general has gotten a whole lot easier. Moms no longer have to push their strollers on the highway; they can use the Valley Trail system. There are stores that carry kids clothing and necessities. Programming abounds for kids. Sometimes, in fact, the problem is that there are too many options: gymnastics, swimming, martial arts, skiing, Nordic skiing, mountain biking, sailing, biathlon, dance, musical theatre, soccer, Girl Guides, Boy Scouts. These are but a few of the extra-curricular activities available for Whistler children. But in other ways, the same issues raise their heads as they did in 1980. Sports weigh heavily as a priority in Whistler. It can still take work to ensure that a child has a balanced outlook, especially in the arts and culture sector.
Sometimes Whistler is too small
But even Whistler can be too small, especially when raw talent and drive needs to be honed.
Some children just can't get what they need here, especially once they begin to excel in a sport or activity.
Howe's family is an example. Her two girls stayed in Whistler and both successfully completed high school and went on to university and jobs but her son wanted to pursue hockey at a higher level than he was able to here. At age 15 he left for Burnaby. While it was tough to see him go, Howe feels it was the right decision for their family. Now, after four years playing junior hockey in Kamloops, her son Michael McCance will play for Thompson Rivers University for his first year.
Local violinist Maddie Reid had a similar issue. Maddie began playing the violin at age five - mostly to be different from her piano playing siblings, according to her mom, Jane Reid. She started with music instructor Beth Solem.
"Beth was great," says Reid. "She really helped [Maddie] develop a love of music."
But by age 11, Maddie needed to take lessons from a violinist with experience playing at a professional level. There weren't any such people in the corridor. And so began many years of driving to Vancouver.
For several years Maddie took lessons from an instructor in West Vancouver every two weeks. She attended the Summer Pops Orchestra, a two-week summer camp where participants take part in a tour. After three years of the camp her culminating experience was to tour across the country with the orchestra, travelling as far as Quebec.
In Grades 10 and 12 Maddie auditioned for, and was accepted into, the senior Vancouver Youth Symphony Orchestra. That meant lessons every Saturday in West Vancouver, followed by a three-hour rehearsal with the orchestra in Kitsilano.
"Every Saturday was completely taken up with that," says Reid.
But it paid off. Maddie is in her third year studying Music Performance at the University of Victoria. The program is very competitive. She had to audition to get into the Music program at UVIC, and then after two years, had to audition again for acceptance into the Music Performance program. It's difficult, with practicing and rehearsals on top of the usual course load.
Maddie rehearses and performs regularly with an orchestra and a string quartet, as well as studying solo repertoire. She is also coached and taught by members of the quartet-in-residence (the Lafayette String Quartet) and members of the Victoria Symphony.
Her mom doesn't begrudge the time spent in the car during those high school years. With obvious pride she says: "I'm so happy that she got in [to the Music Performance program]. I'm so happy that she is able to be in that world with other people who have the same love of music."
Maddie echoes that thought.
"The world of classical musicians is very close-knit, and I enjoy being a part of it," she says. "It's also a very intellectual world, but I don't think most people realize how much refinement, discipline, and hard work go into playing classical music. However, it's worth it to be able to play great music."
Will Maddie ever return to Whistler? She'd like to. At heart she's a Whistler kid, who loves to ski and hike. But most professional musicians make a living through a variety of means - playing in a symphony, being a chamber musician and teaching.
"There's no symphony in Whistler," says Reid. "There's no chamber music group. There's just teaching." So the travel will continue. Maddie hopes to head to Europe, where the arts are subsidized to a greater extent than they are in North America, and attend a conservatory.
Wherever Reid chooses to settle, there will always be a home in Whistler.
"We hope our kids will always come here for holidays. After all, it is a great place to come back to," says Reid.
Short of an orchestra starting in Whistler, there wasn't much that could have helped Maddie follow her path in Whistler.
Keeping families here
Her love of music couldn't keep Maddie here, but another issue that forces families, and others, away is affordability.
Just as it is in many other Canadian towns, childcare is an issue in Whistler.
According to Councillor Ralph Forsyth, the preschool years are a critical time for families.
"That's when we see people leave Whistler," he says. "[A couple] has kids, takes the year of maternity leave and then realizes how expensive it is to pay for childcare."
Forsyth thinks there are steps the municipality can take to help families out.
The first is to put childcare in the Official Community Plan by stating that there should be a daycare at Maurice Young Millennium Place. Daycare was one of the original uses that MY Place was to include and the Teddy Bear Daycare operates out of the space today.
"You should have to amend the OCP to remove the daycare," he says.
Childcare doesn't fall under the mandate of local governments. However, Forsyth thinks it is important for council to bring up issues with our federal representatives such as wage subsidies for childcare workers and increasing the universal child care benefit. He believes that making infant/toddler training a mandatory part of the Early Childhood Educator program would increase the number of qualified instructors in Whistler.
Beyond childcare, there are other measures that the municipality is taking, or could take, to keep families in Whistler and improve the quality of life for those who stay. The Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) provides the opportunity for families to afford housing, whether they rent or own.
Keeping free programming in an expensive town - the parks, the Valley Trail, beaches, the library, and programs like the parent-tot drop-in - helps too. The municipality also hands out grants through the Community Enrichment Program (just over $140,000 in 2011) to community groups. Two examples are the grant to the Whistler Childcare Centre, and to WORCA (Whistler Off Road Cycling Association) to subsidize the youth bike camps.
The Whistler Arts Council (WAC) also has programs to support families, beyond the Whistler Children's Art Festival. The organization manages the street entertainment in the village. Much of the programming is appropriate for kids and families, and benefits tourists and locals alike.
Since WAC has taken over the management of Millennium Place, they now have a venue to create arts programming, such as pumpkin carving at Halloween and crafts at Christmas. The performance series put on by WAC every year contains between one and three shows aimed at kids, which are always popular.
But there is more to supporting families and the arts than just programming. WAC gives out art awards to one student in Grade 7 and 12 at each of the public schools in Whistler, Pemberton and Mount Currie.
"(The awards) are a great opportunity to show emerging artists that they are appreciated, that they have talent, and that it is important for them to continue with their artistic passion," says Niedermayer.
It is also a great opportunity for the members of WAC to see which artists are out there, and whom to nurture.
Devin White is a great example.
He won the Whistler Secondary Grade 12 art award this year, and has been hired by WAC over the past few years to create work for them.
"The kids are so good, but they often don't know their own talent," says Niedermayer. "It is so genuine. It's a real pleasure to see raw talent before it is trained and polished."
Niedermayer enjoys connecting with artists on an early basis, helping them grow, supporting them, and watching them succeed. She likens watching Ali Milner succeed as a vocal artist and return to perform here, to ski club coaches watching their racers grow up to be Olympians.
Another organization working for Whistler families is Moving Mountains for Children, a grassroots group that is supported through Sea to Sky Community Services and the Putting Children First initiative of the BC government. Three years ago, anyone interested in kids aged zero to six was invited to join the fledgling group. Jane Millen was one of the people who responded to the call. She and the other members of Moving Mountains saw a need for networking among families.
"There are lots of things to do in Whistler, but when you are new to town you don't always know what they are," says Millen.
The group created a calendar, which lists free and nearly free weekly activities for families. The events are now posted on whistler4kids.com.
They also looked at the gaps in services for families of young children, and realized there were not enough arts activities. Thus Music Together was born.
It's a program led by a trained instructor where parents and kids get together to enjoy music. They listen to different kinds of music, try percussion, and move to the beat. The first weekly session last fall sold out, so two sessions were offered in the winter. They sold out too. So did the three sessions this spring. Four sessions will be offered this coming fall.
Another focus of Moving Mountains is to bring low-cost opportunities for families to Whistler. The group decided there wasn't much for young people at the south end of town and since not everyone has easy access to the village, they started a Monday pre-school open gym at Spring Creek Community School.
"It was extremely popular," says Millen. "In the middle of winter, we had 40 kids in the gym. It's hard for little kids to be outside in the snow for long periods of time."
Whether it's through improving childcare, bringing musical experience to town, or starting a summer arts camp, Whistlerites are always working to enrich life for families. Whistler has come a long way since parents pushed their strollers along the highway in 1980.
Still, making a life for your family in Whistler is a conscious choice.
Sometimes that choice includes making the decision to drive - a lot - or to fill a need yourself, or to make do with what's here.
But when you look around and see all that's here, sometimes the choice is easy to make.