United Way's new 'Growmobile' brings kindergarten readiness to local children

Under the trees in the Regency West park, more than a dozen children listen to Jessica Mueller as she reads a story aloud for them about dinosaurs. Some of the youngsters fidget, but most are watching intently as Mueller turns the pages of "Catch...

Under the trees in the Regency West park, more than a dozen children listen to Jessica Mueller as she reads a story aloud for them about dinosaurs.

Some of the youngsters fidget, but most are watching intently as Mueller turns the pages of "Catch Me If You Can."

She points to a colorful illustration. "Do you see all the little dinosaurs hiding? They're all hiding behind rocks," she says.

"And trees!" shouts one of the boys in the audience.

Five days a week, Mueller, an intern with the United Way of Kandiyohi County, visits Willmar's two mobile home parks with books, games and informal lessons.


The project, known as the Growmobile, is being piloted by the United Way this summer to help improve children's readiness for kindergarten.

United Way officials plan to turn the Growmobile into a permanent program this coming year.

"It's been received way better than I ever thought it would be. It has just been phenomenal," said Stacey Roberts, executive director.

A $10,000 grant from the UPS Foundation, announced this past week, will allow the United Way to buy a small bus or RV for outreach visits to neighborhoods around Kandiyohi County.

"By April we hope to have it up and running," Roberts said.

It's one of the strategies that Empower, the United Way's new women's philanthropy initiative, is using to help narrow the kindergarten readiness gap.

Surveys show as many as half of preschoolers in Kandiyohi County aren't prepared for kindergarten, and this gap is widening.

Mueller, who's a student at St. Cloud State University and plans to become a special education teacher, said youngsters who start behind often stay behind.


"Some kids are coming into kindergarten knowing how to read, and others don't know how to read," she said. "Those gaps can start early in life. That's why it's so important to be ready, because if you're not, you might never catch up."

Empower's goal is to have 80 percent of Kandiyohi County children meet readiness goals by 2012. So far, the initiative, which was launched last year, has raised $100,000 -- half of it designated for the Growmobile.

In focus groups held this spring with teachers, early childhood educators and others who work with young children, access to early learning was identified as a major need, especially for hard-to-reach populations and families who don't have English as their first language, Roberts said.

"We started to figure out how we get our arms around this issue," she said. "We asked kindergarten teachers: If you could wave a magic wand, what would you do?"

Like the old-fashioned bookmobile, the Growmobile brings its programming to kids and parents in their own neighborhoods.

The curriculum, developed by a committee with the Empower initiative, focuses on basics: learning simple numbers, colors and shapes. Learning to follow simple rules and instructions. Learning to be in a social environment and developing an attention span.

Some basic health information is incorporated, such as proper tooth-brushing.

Parent involvement also is invited. Because many of these parents might have had negative school experiences in their own childhood, one of the important roles of the Growmobile is to help them become comfortable with education professionals, Roberts said.


Through weekly parent sessions, parents also are given skills to encourage their children to learn and explore new activities.

At first, children were tentative when Mueller pulled into the mobile home park with her box of books and crafts.

But gradually, more of them began showing up for the hour-long sessions, which are paired with The Salvation Army's noontime canteen.

"You could just tell the word spread around," Mueller said.

She now sees an average of 40 to 50 youngsters a day at the two mobile home parks.

"Usually they get excited about the crafts. We found out that sidewalk chalk is a pretty big hit. They love it," she said. "The idea is to have fun. We want them to want to be here."

Karen Hilding of the Empower steering committee said Mueller "has a real rapport with the kids. It took the right person to launch this. She's creative and energetic."

United Way officials aren't aware of any other community with a similar project. They're hoping the Growmobile can become a national model for outreach to preschoolers.


"You've got to believe it's going to make an impact, getting them into kindergarten," said John Martens, director of strategic accounts and sales for the North Central Zone of UPS. Martens, a board member of the United Way of Kandiyohi County, brought the Growmobile to the attention of the UPS Foundation as a project worth funding.

Evaluation will help measure the extent to which the Growmobile is helping increase kindergarten readiness among the children it serves.

Mueller said that as the summer has progressed, she's noticed the children are learning to sit still and pay attention.

One little boy, she recalled, was too timid at first to jump rope.

"Now he can jump through the whole alphabet without stopping," she said.

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