For decades, the name Mary J. Wright was associated with an innovative, on-campus “laboratory preschool” at Western University which was established by the educational psychology professor in 1973 to conduct research on children from low-income families. Now Western is helping to reinvigorate the late scholar’s legacy and vision by attaching Dr. Wright’s name to a new research-based community partnership. The Mary J. Wright Research and Education Centre, scheduled to open shortly, brings together an interdisciplinary team of more than 30 researchers from Western’s faculties of education, science, social science and health sciences to work directly with the children and families who come to Merrymount, London, Ontario’s renowned family support and crisis centre.
Dr. Wright’s extended family gave its blessing to transfer the namesake endowment, which dates back to 2001, from the now-defunct preschool to the new centre, which will drive research in areas such as early childhood development. The arrangement also provides researchers with the opportunity to test intervention programs on-site to help provide better outcomes for children, their families and communities, says Vicki Schwean, dean of Western’s faculty of education and the interim director of new centre.
“That’s what makes this different,” says Dr. Schwean. “We’ve identified, in a very strategic way, who will work in our centre and how they will work together. We think we are unique in Canada in terms of actually having the researchers on site,” she says. “We also saw the need for training the next generation of interdisciplinary scholars, as well as policy development – translating what we do into evidence-based policies.”
Ailene Wittstein, Merrymount’s executive director, fondly recalls several years ago taking a nearly 90-year-old Dr. Wright on a tour of the facility to show her where more than 8,000 children and families seek help every year. Ms. Wittstein says Dr. Wright was beloved by the community. After years of sending Merrymount staff to learn from Western’s laboratory school as well as hosting graduate students at Merrymount, Ms. Wittstein says much trust was built, which is key to the new collaboration.
“We’re changing the whole practice of how we work with vulnerable children,” she says. “I don’t think researchers will be able to walk away from here and not be changed by the families and the children they’ve met.”
Both Dr. Schwean and Ms. Wittstein spoke about the critical importance of brain science and the benefits of intervening earlier in children’s lives when they have been dealing with acute stress. “We’re so excited. This will make the world better for these kids,” says Ms. Wittstein. “Having met Mary Wright, I can just see her smiling.”