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Growmobile helps bridge gap during summer

WILLMAR -- As the brightly decorated Growmobile bus pulled up to Rice Park on Tuesday morning, several children swarmed around it to greet Ahmed Siddiqui as he climbed off carrying a box full of supplies.

For the next half hour, Siddiqui, head intern for the United Way of West Central Minnesota's Growmobile program, fellow interns Ashley Plucker and Alexa McLain and educators from the University of Minnesota Extension 4-H and Healthy Active Willmar Kids programs led the 12 children in attendance in various activities centered around the theme of emotions.

"Our goals are to teach them things they haven't learned before, get them excited about learning and give them something consistent in their lives," Siddiqui said.

Each week, the Growmobile has a different theme and the activities for the week center around that theme. Additionally, every Tuesday, an educator from the University of Minnesota Extension 4-H program rides along and provides agriculture-related programming. Healthy Active Willmar Kids also rides along Monday-Thursday, providing activities for school-age children.

"The Growmobile is mainly for preschool-aged kids," Siddiqui said. "But we've worked really closely with HAWK this summer to provide adaptive programming for all ages. This is the first summer that these two programs have pretty much acted as one program, which has been really good for both of us."

The main purpose of the Growmobile is to work with children who are under school age and help prepare them for school. The program also provides parents with tips for helping their children be ready for school.

"We want to make sure the gap can be diminished as much as possible," Siddiqui said.

Part of helping diminish that gap also includes exposing the children to leaders within the community. Members of the Willmar Stingers baseball team, Willmar American Legion and Willmar Fire Department have all joined the Growmobile throughout the summer.

For Siddiqui, the experience is completely new, but one that he's found he thoroughly enjoys, he said.

"I've volunteered in the community and tutored before, but I've never done something of this magnitude," Siddiqui said. "I love it. When you have kids swarming around you because they haven't seen you in a couple days and they're excited to see what they're going to do that day, it makes it fun."

Siddiqui's fellow intern Ashley Plucker said she's majoring in early childhood and this internship has her even more interested in the career path she's chosen.

"Every day is always different," Plucker said. "We have new kids every time, and even with our recent schedule change, it feels like we're doing something new even though it's the middle of summer."

The flexibility of the program also helps Plucker look forward to each day.

"The kids are so engaged and willing to do whatever we have planned," Plucker said. "We're able to make almost every lesson work for every age, no matter how young or old, which is great.

The Growmobile program runs through Aug. 23. It visits Atwater, New London, Raymond and Pennock once a week, Lincoln Park and Rice Park in Willmar twice a week and Dana Heights, Regency West and Sunwood in Willmar daily. The Salvation Army Summer Feeding Program delivers lunch to each Willmar location every day the program meets, and the Growmobile gives food backpacks to each child at the Willmar locations on Fridays.

For more information, contact Regina Schmitz, United Way of West Central Minnesota's Growmobile coordinator, at 320-235-1050.