ORIGINALLY WRITTEN ALEEN RATZLAFF
In a basement classroom at Parkview Mennonite Brethren Church, 3-year-old Brittany Schale and Maleah Myer, soon-to-be-3, intently squeezed paint from plastic bottles on colored construction paper on a table, customized to their size.
While the two toddlers created works of art, 8-month-old Tiffany Schale and 10-month-old Cody Myer played contentedly with plastic toys on the floor. Nearby, mothers Shelly Schale of Hillsboro and Lori Myer of rural Tampa interacted with each other as they kept a close watch over their children.
Beginning Aug. 1, this Early Steps playgroup, part of an infant/ toddler program provided for parents through the Marion County Health Department, will become a Parents as Teachers program.
In Marion County, Parents as Teachers is a collaborative effort among school districts, the Marion County Health Department and Communities in Schools.
“It’s a program for 0- to 3-year-olds that’s home-based and voluntary for parents,” said USD 410 Superintendent Gordon Mohn.
Available to families of all income and educational levels, PAT services are provided at no cost.
As a cooperative program, PAT will be funded by a grant that matches money from the state with local money from school districts and the health department.
The national PAT organization is a network of local programs that provide parenting education and support for families. Home visits, group meetings, playgroups and developmental screenings make up key components of the program, according to PAT literature.
While the name of the current program will change, the goals and objectives remain the same, said director Lesli Beery, whose position becomes fulltime Aug. 1.
As a “stay-at-home mom,” Schale said she welcomes the opportunity for her children to interact with others in the play sessions held every other Wednesday morning at the Parkview MB Church since April.
“Playgroup gives the kids a time to play with other kids,” she said. “I’ve learned about age-level appropriate activities that help the kids learn developmentally.”
As a local PAT director, Beery will be responsible for writing the grants to renew the program every year, she said, but her primary role is being a support and serving as a resource for parents.
A lot of mothers live in rural areas and don’t see anybody, except maybe at church once a week or when they go to the grocery store, Beery said.
Myer, who lives a half mile from the Dickinson County line, regularly brings her two children to the playgroup in Hillsboro.
“She drives in every other Wednesday for playgroup,” Beery said. “She’s been to all our group meetings. She’s a very dedicated mom-very dedicated to the program. Her children are great kids.”
Beery said she has 14 families on the waiting list, so she’s looking forward to the additional time she can give to her job.
“I’ll continue seeing all my families and continue with the playgroups,” said Beery, who also runs a biweekly group in Peabody. “We are talking about having the Hillsboro group every week instead of every other week because we have families that are interested.”
The playgroup is open to everyone with children in the community, whether or not they are enrolled in the PAT program.
“Every child under 3 is welcome to attend, and siblings are welcome, as well,” Beery said.
“But it is not a babysitting service. Parents are there all the time, interacting with each other and the children. Playing is the way children learn.”
In addition to the supervising playgroups, Beery makes monthly visits to the homes of program participants.
“I will be going out and visiting 50 families once a month for about an hour,” she said. “If there are two children, I usually stay more than an hour.
“Parents as Teachers is a very open, flexible program. I do evening and weekend visits, as well.”
Beery finds that the needs of families vary.
“I do have a couple moms who are suffering from postpartum depression,” she said. “That’s another reason they need that support.
“I also have a couple of moms who have children very close in age, and that’s a challenge for them.”
Most PAT participants are mothers, but fathers also get involved.
During a recent home visit by Beery to see a mother, the father sat in and participated actively.
“He knew exactly what their child was doing,” she said. “He wanted to be completely involved. For a young father, that’s kind of unusual.
“We see a lot of dad enrollments. We also see a lot of single-parent families. I don’t see any parents that are just the dads, though.”
Beery graduated from Tabor College in January with elementary education and through Associated Colleges of Central Kansas in McPherson earned her certification for early childhood and childhood disability.
In February, Beery attended a week-long training session for the curriculum in Topeka. As a national program, PAT has a curriculum that is used by programs in all 50 states.
“It’s pretty intense, but it gets you familiar with the curriculum and with your role to support and be a resource for parents,” she said. “Every parent is different and every child is different.”
Recently, she responded to an 11:30 p.m. call from a mother who couldn’t get her baby to stop crying.
“It’s not just an office job,” Beery said. “You take it home with you every night.”
But that hasn’t tempered Beery’s enthusiasm for her job.
“I have 46 babies and I love everyone of them. Parents just need somebody who cares.”