It's seven months since Regina Schmitz first went on the road with the Growmobile, bringing preschool learning to day-care children in Kandiyohi County.
"Now that we're nearing the end of the year, I can see progress," said Schmitz, coordinator of the United Way of West Central Minnesota's Success by 6 program. "They're able to sit still for a story. That's been very evident to me. They know their alphabet. They know their colors."
The payoff, it's hoped, will come when these youngsters enter kindergarten ready to learn.
As the Growmobile starts its third summer this year, there are signs it has begun to make a difference, said Gina Lieser, coordinator of volunteer services for the United Way.
"We hear stories from kindergarten teachers explaining what they're seeing," she said. Principals have reported that when older children come back to class in the fall, "they hadn't regressed in learning," she said.
As many as half of the kindergarten-age children in Kandiyohi County enter school unprepared to learn. Narrowing this gap is the goal of Empower, a women's philanthropy initiative launched by the local United Way in 2007 to boost kindergarteners' readiness to learn. The group is aiming for 80 percent of Kandiyohi County youngsters to be prepared for kindergarten by 2012.
Among the biggest obstacles local children face: poverty, language barriers and a lack of transportation.
Many of these youngsters have no opportunity to go to preschool, which can put them behind -- often permanently -- early in life, Lieser said.
"We needed to create access for families. The Growmobile was the answer," she said. "It's bringing a preschool experience to kids who otherwise wouldn't get it. If you start behind in kindergarten, it is hard to catch up."
Last summer the Growmobile each week reached 160 children under the age of 6. The summer program targets at-risk neighborhoods where families are likely to be poor or isolated.
Starting last fall, the Growmobile expanded to 20 child-care providers of at-risk children in Atwater, New London, Pennock, Raymond, Spicer and Willmar.
That first summer, the Growmobile consisted of the back seat of a staff intern's car. This past year it graduated to a colorful RV, bought with a grant from UPS and emblazoned with an outdoor mural and letters of the alphabet.
On most weekdays, Schmitz is on the road, traveling to participating day-care homes with a curriculum developed by students at Ridgewater College.
She reads out loud to the youngsters and engages them in learning and games. "There's always an art activity, a math activity, a snack activity and a flannel-board activity," she said. At the end of the session, a newsletter is passed out to send home to parents.
"Parents then have an opportunity to continue the Growmobile curriculum in their home. We've had good feedback from that," she said.
Empower hopes one of the benefits will be better partnerships with parents, Lieser said. "If parents had a bad experience with school, it's a pretty scary thing to get their own kids ready for the school system."
The kindergarten readiness initiative extends to other fronts as well. To help youngsters make the most of their final year before entering kindergarten, Empower provides backpacks filled with learning materials for each of the 800 children in Kandiyohi County who go through preschool screening.
To date, the initiative has awarded more than $25,000 in grants to community projects that support kindergarten readiness. And because kids who are hungry are less likely to be ready to learn, a summer program has been launched with the Willmar Area Food Shelf to send home a weekend backpack of nonperishable food items with children who attend the Growmobile. Last year this program served 60 children a week; this summer it's being expanded to 75.
For now, the kindergarten readiness effort is focused on Kandiyohi County. But the United Way of West Central Minnesota is working in Litchfield to help develop a similar initiative that will be started this fall, Lieser said.
The visibility has grown substantially, she said. "People have been seeing it more. People have been asking about it... We definitely have had community support. It feels good to know that."