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Program has caught attention of Encyclopedia Britannica

Rudy Vigil of WRAC8 tapes Early Childhood Coordinator Jodi Wambeke as she reads a story from the Ben and Bella series Thursday in the basement of Jefferson School. The local access cable channel and early childhood program are teaming up to create a series of programs aimed at helping kids who are learning English. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Ben and Bella will be making their television debut in Willmar next week.

Ben, a young bear, and Bella, a friendly hippo, are the stars of a new read-along series, "Ben and Bella Read Along," produced for Willmar Regional Access Channels.

The series is the brainchild of WRAC coordinator Rudy Vigil and Jodi Wambeke, Early Childhood Education coordinator for Willmar Community Education and Recreation.

They adapted information from the Discover English with Ben and Bella materials from Encyclopedia Britannica.

Britannica officials have been so pleased with the results that they have distributed the WRAC DVD to sales reps nationwide.

Ben and Bella, along with a squawky red parrot named Pete, are featured in Britannica's immersion program for learning English. It was originally developed in Korea.

The show for WRAC's TV 18, which premieres today, is for pre-schoolers and includes a read-along book as well as singing, dancing and activities.

The show will follow the pair, with Pete as the guide narrator, as they go on 18 different adventures. They'll go to a beach, visit a circus, ride a bus and go to the train station.

The first show telecast in Willmar will be about the train station and words that begin with "T."

Wambeke said the shows are appropriate for all children, not just those learning English.

"Not every kid gets to pre-school or child care," she said, and this series could help them with letters, colors and other concepts they need to be ready for kindergarten.

The entire project grew out of a chance meeting at a conference in the Twin Cities last year. Vigil met representatives from Britannica at their booth and saw the Ben and Bella materials. He talked to them about using the characters in a locally produced show.

The folks from Britannica liked his idea enough to fly him and Wambeke to Chicago for a meeting.

A Smart Board interactive whiteboard was donated the Twin Cities business Tierney Bros., at the urging of Britannica.

Michael N. Ross, a senior vice president at Britannica, said the company is very pleased with the program produced by Wambeke and Vigil.

"This is unique," Ross said in a telephone interview from Chicago. "I think it's a great way of presenting the material and gaining exposure."

The company is also showing the DVD in its conference exhibit booths.

"What Rudy and Jodi did, they digested it and looked closely at how the material can be used in a classroom along with a professional presenter," Ross said. "It can be used as a model."

The program uses a local host reading a book about Ben and Bella with animation and live action footage of actors in Ben and Bella costumes dancing with children, all available from Britannica. Lieser also leads some activities using the Smart Board.

The program shows just a portion of the Ben and Bella materials that are available, he said, but it gives people an idea of what's available and "demonstrates the value of the whole program."

Ross said he has always been excited about the potential of the Ben and Bella program, but it can be difficult to gain awareness. "There's nothing quite like it that was developed for English Language Learning," he said. "It needs advocates; it needs people who understand how it can work with kids."

Wambeke said they have been a little surprised at the turn of events in the past few months, starting with Vigil's casual conversations at a convention booth. "It has evolved into this phenomenal thing that has become national," she said.

So far, the cost for developing the program has been minimal. "This is part of our jobs," Vigil said, and Britannica granted unrestricted access to the Ben and Bella materials.

Vigil said he plans to make the show available on the WRAC Web site soon. WRAC's three channels reach about 10,000 households with cable television in the Willmar area.

WRAC produces another read-along series, which began a year ago, featuring volunteer readers and their favorite children's books. So far, the series has featured 76 different volunteers who have read 220 books.

"Ben and Bella Read Along" will be televised on TV 18 at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday, 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday and 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Friday. It will also air at 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

WRAC programming schedules are available in the Tribune's Channels section each Friday and are available at the city of Willmar Web site, WRAC is listed under City Departments.

More information about Ben and Bella, and Pete, is available at

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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