Fraser Mustard’s vision for kids lives on

Posted on October 3, 2012 in Child & Family Debates

Source: — Authors: – opinion/editorialopinion
October 02, 2012.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

Four months before his death, Fraser Mustard, medical pioneer, champion of early learning, educator, sparkplug for scientific innovation and lifelong foe of conventional thinking, began building his legacy piece by piece.

Weakened by cancer, he could not leave his house. So his followers came to him. The Fraser Mustard Institute for Human Development took shape in his living room.

Last week, the University of Toronto officially launched the institute. “I wish he was here,” said Maria Sokolowski, its academic director. “But he knew this would happen.”

As scientists, educators, pediatric researchers and children’s advocates from three continents gathered for the inauguration, Sokolowski and executive director Stephen Lye shared a few memories of their weekly sessions with Mustard.

“He’d wag his finger to make sure we got it,” said Lye, professor of obstetrics and gynecology, mimicking the gesture familiar to all who knew him. Sokolowski, a geneticist, remembered how their visits perked him up. “He looked forward to our coming.”

He gave the pair very explicit guidelines:

• It was not to be a typical academic institute. Mustard believed most academics were out of step with children. What he wanted was a fulcrum for researchers dedicated to making children’s lives better.

Each would bring his or her expertise — medicine, neuroscience, engineering, genetics, psychology, education, social work, parenting — and together they would create new possibilities and explore new avenues.

• It was not to stay within the ivory tower. It had to be part of the community, acting as living resource for families, early learning centres, schools and medical practices.

• It was not to be compartmentalized by department or specialty. He’d spent his life trying to break down artificial boundaries.

“I’m positive we’ll do justice to his vision,” Lye said.

What convinced Mustard to embed his legacy in a university rather than a think-tank or research organization was the opportunity to train graduate students from a wide range of fields to combine their skills to maximize human potential.

What convinced him to put it at the U of T was the depth of its talent pool and his conviction that its president, Dr. David Naylor, “got it in spades.”

It took about a year to turn the institute from a concept into a reality. But the idea had been germinating in Mustard’s brain for more than two decades. He would browbeat colleagues to pay attention to a child’s rapid brain development in the first 2,000 days of life and hound policy-makers to make early learning a priority.

No one had any doubt about how to immortalize him.

What some doubted — and still do — was that Fraser’s boldness, enthusiasm and sharp reflexes could be replicated by any university-bound institute.

Will it make the connections he made? He could look at a newspaper, scan a story featuring a young offender who had fathered a dozen children with different women and show how his life chances were determined before he set foot in kindergarten. He could go into a low-income neighbourhood and pick out the children who were struggling at school. He could spot a child who’d never been told he or she was good at anything.

It frustrated Mustard that policy-makers let these kids fail. It infuriated him that they refused to acknowledge the costs to society: needlessly high social assistance expenditures, mental-health problems, unemployment, crime, incarceration and chronic illness.

But he kept pushing for change, winning converts at home and followers around the world.

The three biggest challenges for his successors will be building on his momentum, finding effective public advocates (former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin is an early supporter) and convincing politicians that shortchanging Canada’s youngest children is a false saving.

Between now and next September, Lye and Sokolowski will develop a curriculum, recruit faculty members and open the institute for admissions. More than 100 professors have expressed interest and graduate students from as far away as Africa are asking when they can sign up.

By this time next year, Mustard’s torch will have passed to a new generation

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