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Childhood development program comes to close

KENNEBEC--Friday night marked the end of a Lyman County program that residents called a "great asset" for the community. During a gathering at the Kennebec Fire Hall, more than 35 people ate dinner, socialized and said "goodbye" to the Parents as...

Children play with toys Friday afternoon at the Kennebec Fire Hall during a gathering to mark the end of Lyman county's Parents as Teachers program. (Caitlynn Peetz/Republic)
Children play with toys Friday afternoon at the Kennebec Fire Hall during a gathering to mark the end of Lyman county's Parents as Teachers program. (Caitlynn Peetz/Republic)

KENNEBEC-Friday night marked the end of a Lyman County program that residents called a "great asset" for the community.

During a gathering at the Kennebec Fire Hall, more than 35 people ate dinner, socialized and said "goodbye" to the Parents as Teachers program-a service that had been in place for 10 years.

According to Betty Jean Mertens, supervisor and educator with the Parents as Teachers program, PAT is a program that works with 0- to 5-year-old children and their families on early childhood development, including social and emotional development, listening skills and language development. The program's five educators met with families once each month.

To operate, Mertens relied on a 21st Century Grant, which covered all of PAT's expenses, including wages, rent and supplies. In 2006, Mertens was awarded the first, five-year grant to start the program and was re-awarded the grant in 2011. Mertens was notified in May that PAT was not awarded the grant a third time.

In the program's final year, 66 families were served, but because some families had more than one child involved in the program, Mertens said closer to 85 kids were involved, a number consistent with what PAT encountered each year during its decade-long lifespan.

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"I think it's kind of a bummer, I really do ... The community's losing out on something special," said Tracy Brakke, the mother of four children who utilized the program. "It was a wonderful thing. You would see the progress in your kid that you wouldn't normally."

Based in Kennebec, PAT served all of Lyman County, from Vivian to Reliance and catered to everyone-families did not have to meet income requirements or have children with a disability to participate.

And although the program proved extremely beneficial, according to school officials and several families, the grant's awarding committee did not choose the Lyman County program for funding. Mertens said it is impossible for PAT to operate without the 21st Century grant money and is unsure why the program she pioneered was not chosen again. The group expects to receive a written explanation in the coming months.

"In my mind, I'm going to say I think because it's called 21st Century Grant After School Programs, I think maybe they're looking to keep it strictly to after-school programs," Mertens said. "Our count compared to an after-school program is a lot less, so I think ... efficiency and budget-wise, they get their money's worth, touching a lot more lives, with after-school programs than ours."

But Mertens said PAT has had a lasting impact on the communities involved.

Along with monthly services for more than 150 families, PAT teamed up with local Lions Clubs to bring hearing and eye testing to the school district. As a result, dozens of children's vision and hearing deficiencies were caught prior to them starting school-essentially giving educators' a headstart in correcting developmental delays.

"These parents, they're with their kids all the time, so sometimes they don't notice problems that are beginning to show because that's just how it is-they don't know any different," Mertens said. "Moving forward, I would hope, for one thing, that we've instilled in them the desire to spend quality time with their children and that we've given them tools to use to keep their kids learning."

Now that the program has ended, Mertens said there is no program like PAT in Lyman County. But Christie Collins, a parent whose two children were involved in PAT, said she could see a similar group sprouting in years to come when the community realizes what it has lost.

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"I feel fortunate to use it from the beginning to end, and I think it's something that could come back to the area," Collins said. "The need is here, and I'm sad for the other families that didn't get to use Parents as Teachers. Anything that helps with their education and learning is so beneficial to the community."

Betty Jean Mertens, supervisor and educator with the Lyman county Parents as Teachers program, addresses a crowd of more than 30 people Friday night at the Kennebec Fire Hall during a gathering to mark the end of the PAT program. (Caitlynn Peetz/Republic)
Betty Jean Mertens, supervisor and educator with the Lyman county Parents as Teachers program, addresses a crowd of more than 30 people Friday night at the Kennebec Fire Hall during a gathering to mark the end of the PAT program. (Caitlynn Peetz/Republic)

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