WILLMAR — It looks like a bus, and it brings fun things to do for children in the community.
This week, children in the Dana Heights neighborhood sat on blankets in the shade of a big tree near the Growmobile mobile preschool and worked on their letters and numbers.
They talked about healthy foods and tasted pieces of red and green apples to see which they liked better. They cut out pictures of good food from magazines. For some, it was a time to learn to use scissors.
They also sang a silly song about peanut butter in their hair and, well, everywhere.
About a dozen children were on the blankets at first, while a group of boys played soccer nearby. Gradually, the number built to nearly 20 children.
Eli Cano of Willmar leaned on the tree and watched her daughters, Emely, 7, and Jennifer, 4, and neighbor, Mikayla, 6, sing and learn.
“They love coming here,” she said. “They learn a lot of things.”
Cano pointed to her daughters and said her 4-year-old learns many things at the park, while her 7-year-old has fun and gets reinforcement of things she has already learned. The girls get ideas at the park they use while they’re playing, she added.
Pre-school educator Michele White said it was nice to hear from a mom how the kids feel about the Growmobile. While the programs haven’t changed, the vehicle used to deliver them is shiny and new.
The new vehicle, with its bright decals, can bring kids running from all around a neighborhood. It is smaller than the original Growmobile. It has a backup camera and maneuvers more easily than the original, making it much safer for the children who run out to greet it.
“It looks like a bus, which is appropriate,” White said. “It brings fun people and stories; these relationships built here are priceless.”
An added feature is working air conditioning, which is “such a luxury” for the workers, White said. It gives them a needed break between stops on hot days.
United Way employees and several interns work with the Growmobile all summer, and volunteers help deliver a variety of special programs.
Growmobile worker Miranda Borchert said she has seen growth in the children this summer in their alphabet and counting, even their cutting skills. And they are learning sign language.
When the kids were asked what they liked best, one girl summed it up — “Everything.”
Tuesdays bring 4-H visits. Willmar Stingers and West Central Broncos players, firefighters, police officers and people from area businesses volunteer with the program. Kiwanis members read with the kids on Fridays.
The weeks have different themes. “We are talking about being healthy this week,” White said. In August, the kids will have a visit from farm animals.
“It’s all a good way for other people in the community to see what we do here,” she said.
The new vehicle replaces a well-worn converted recreational vehicle which was purchased used five years ago. Jennie-O Turkey Store funded the purchase of the new Growmobile this year.
The small bus had some seats removed to make room for storage shelves. Other seats can be folded up if more floor space is needed.
In summers, the Growmobile visits parks for educational activities and recreation. During the school year, it visits home day cares in the area, working with children and sharing curriculum materials with the day care providers.
Willmar parks on the list this summer include Sunwood Estates, Regency West, Dana Heights and Welshire Park each day Monday through Friday. The Salvation Army summer food program provides lunch for children at the same sites.
The Growmobile visits Atwater, New London, Pennock and Raymond once each week.
The program is an effort of United Way’s Empower women’s philanthropy program, which promotes kindergarten readiness in the county.