Growing Up Healthy.jpg

Growing Up Healthy is one recipient of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation’s Early Care and Education Wrap Around Grant program. The initiative VIBES, which stands for Voices Influencing a Better Education System, will help parents find their voices in advocating for their children’s education. Pictured, pre-pandemic, are parents gathered to discuss ways to activate change. (Photo courtesy of Sandy Malecha)

The Somali American Cultural Society of Owatonna has provided after school tutoring to Somali families since 2011, but when the pandemic hit and schools closed, Executive Director Ibrahim Hussein recognized a significant disadvantage for bilingual students.

“We saw a big need because the kids are working at home, their mom and dad can’t help them, (expectations are) the same as kids born and raised here,” Hussein said. “I had to do something.”

For Hussein, “doing something” meant applying for funding through the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation Early Care and Education Wrap Around Grant program. “Wrap around services” applies to resources that families may need in order to care for the child and family as a whole, such as food access programs.

SMIF received $18,000 in funding from the Minnesota Department of Education on behalf of the Governor’s Emergency Relief program, which provides emergency assistance to agencies impacted by the pandemic. SMIF awarded 18 organizations grant funding, including SACSO and three others from Rice County.

“Each Initiative Foundation got this pool of money, and as part of this pool of money, for over two years we’re doing a couple different grant cycles to organizations dealing with the effects of COVID on young children,” said Rae Jean Hansen, vice president of Early Childhood at SMIF. “... We put out proposals to organizations for applying to up to $10,000 to address this particular need to underserved communities, either because they’re really rural, or dealing with a diverse population or like the YMCA, does after school programming.”

SACSO is using the grant to support the success of Somali American children in kindergarten through third grade. The $10,000 will help it provide computer access and homework supplies to families as well as homework support services like one-on-one reading and math tutoring. Hussein said SACSO volunteers will track students’ reading progress virtually by using the same books as the students.

Additionally, it will use the grant funding to continue providing adult education classes to Somali families, so they can become more skilled in their own education and advocate for their children’s success. In particular, Hussein said these classes help parents learn to log onto their children’s school pages and hold them accountable for completing homework assignments. If students miss assignments, parents can call or video chat with SACSO staff for further instruction.

“It’s very helpful,” Hussein said of the grant. “We’re thankful to SMIF for giving us this opportunity; we are very appreciative. We can’t wait to present our progress by the end of the year, what we have achieved and what we have accomplished.”

Another local organization to benefit from the Early Care and Education Wrap Around grant is A Child’s Delight Too, Inc. in Faribault. Director Caren Hoffman said 53% of children enrolled receive free and reduced-price lunch, 30% are Hispanic or children of color, 30% live in single-parent households and 18% are in foster care or live with a relative.

“Our grant that received funding is ‘Stay Afloat and Give Back,’” Hoffman said. “The goals of the grants are to provide training for staff on social/emotional issues around stress and trauma as it applies to children. We will provide additional income for staff who have worked tirelessly to assure safety and routine for children allowing parents/caregivers to work or attend school.”

Those families that “fall through the cracks” will also receive scholarship money from A Child’s Delight Too thanks to the SMIF funding. This, according to Hoffman, will help these parents provide a safer and more stable home experience.

A Child’s Delight Too will also use the funding to provide space for school-aged children not only after school but during the summer and in the event of school closures.

Early childhood assistance

Rice County ParentChild+, a program of Growing Up Healthy, also received $10,000 from SMIF. Through this program, trained early childhood specialists make at-home visits or virtual calls to families to prepare young children for school with books, toys and other resources. The program focuses on multilingual and low-income households and also provides access to additional family services.

Sandy Malecha, Healthy Community Initiative senior director, said 51 children are already enrolled in year two of the program, which began in 2019. State funding supports the program, but Malecha said the ParentChild+ team sought funding from SMIF in case the state allocates that funding elsewhere. The $10,000, she said, will keep the program running as is and allow more families to benefit from the at-home visits.

Another program of Growing Up Healthy, a new initiative called Parents and Policy: Voices Influencing a Better Education System, received $10,000 in SMIF funding. This program empowers Latinx, and immigrant parents and caregivers to advocate for their children’s education at the local and state level. Through training and workshops, parents learn how to share their own experiences in a way that inspires action and change.

VIBES participants will attend a four-part workshop series that focuses on storytelling, public governance and advocacy. They will apply the skills they learn to train others in the community to do similar work of writing letters to the state legislature and advocating for policy changes at the state level.

Locally, Malecha said Growing Up Healthy is using the grant funding to provide stipends to parents who want to attend school board meetings but work the night shift. Malecha said Faribault Superintendent Todd Sesker and Northfield Superintendent Matt Hillmann have given their support for the VIBES program by writing letters for the grant proposal, and they have already engaged in policy making at their level.

“I think parents now more than ever need a positive outlet to share their frustration and also know that leaders care …” Malecha said. “Giving them the support they need to make that change, I just think it’s what we needed right now … I just can’t say enough good things about SMIF. Without their support would have needed to limit the amount of support given to parents to allow them to participate.”

Reporter Misty Schwab can be reached at 507-333-3135. Follow her on Twitter @APGmisty. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

Load comments