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Early Childhood Initiative, SW Initiative develop kids book about rural firefighters

Jodi Wambeke, a coordinator with Willmar Early Childhood Initiative, gets her first look Wednesday at the children's book "Firefighters: On call for their community." The book, published by the Willmar Early Childhood Initiative and the Southwest Initiative Foundation, paints a portrait of the life of an on-call firefighter and also provides fire safety information for families. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Early Childhood Initiative, SW Initiative develop kids book about rural firefighters

WILLMAR -- More than 4 out of 5 fire departments use on-call and volunteer firefighters rather than full-time career employees and protect half of the population of the United States.

A new book, "Firefighters: On call for their community,'' published by the Willmar Early Childhood Initiative and the Southwest Initiative Foundation, colorfully and factually tells the story about a community's on-call firefighters, and provides fire safety information for children and families.

The book will be given to families attending the fourth annual Story Time at the Fire Station from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday at the Willmar Fire Station. The event is sponsored by the Willmar Fire and Police Departments and the Willmar Early Childhood Coalition. Registration deadline is Friday, Oct. 2.

The book idea grew out of the desire for a children's book with factual story about a rural, volunteer fire department while providing the latest safety information.

Sara Carlson, program officer for the Southwest Initiative Foundation in Hutchinson, said the Early Childhood Coalition, which is comprised of citizen stakeholders representing the Willmar School District, has worked with the fire department on the event for the past four years.

Carlson doesn't remember who had the idea of asking the department to work on the event.

"But whoever it was, was genius,'' says Carlson. "It has proven to be just a marvelous partnership.''

During the event, families tour the station, see the trucks and equipment, eat with the firefighters, learn fire prevention and safety tips, and listen to firefighters read a story in English and Spanish. The event furthers the coalition's promotion of literacy for young children and the fire department's goal of providing the best prevention and safety information to families.

"Kids under 6 learn best by experience, and they get to experience everything that evening,'' says Carlson.

Afterward, everyone gathers in the bay of the fire station for a story read by firefighters in English and Spanish.

"We've been fortunate a couple of years to find books that were bilingual, already translated in English and Spanish, but we were not thrilled with most of them,'' said Carlson. "There just wasn't a book that we're all loving to read to the kids.''

Last year, the sponsors decided they wanted a book with the latest safety information that also told an interesting, factual story about a volunteer fire department in a diversity community.

"That's really what we have done,'' said Carlson.

Most of the photos were taken by Kelly Welch of Willmar. Terrah Biegert of the Willmar Fire Department said Welch photographed fire department training sessions and firefighters and equipment attending Willmar Fests activities.

Also, he photographed firefighters in their homes with family members and firefighters at their places of employment to portray the idea that not all firefighters live, eat and sleep in the fire station.

"They have other jobs, they have families, they have kids,'' said Biegert.

Others who helped with the book were Willmar police officer Marilee Dorn with research on safety information, and Early Childhood Initiative members Chris Beyerl, Jodi Wambeke and Anel Flores.

The book encourages parents to read to their children, recommends parents point at pictures and name the objects as they read, and say nursery rhymes to help children develop their language skills.

The back of the book carries important messages about carbon monoxide detectors, exit plans, and home and safety advice.

Maracom Corporation of Willmar is the group's printer.

"They have taken us under their wing because we knew nothing about this,'' said Carlson. "We just had this idea we wanted a book at the end of it. They have helped with all the layout and all of the graphic thinking that goes into putting a good quality piece of literature together.''

The coalition has ordered 900 books. Carlson said KMS School District has purchased books for a similar kind of event later in October.

Carlson said those involved with the state-wide level of the Early Childhood Initiative "believe there are some other communities who are going to really see what we see and that this is a great way to talk about the community helpers in your community and get them involved with their young children, hopefully enjoying the same kind of partnership we've had with our local fire department.''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150