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By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Jane Sonnentag cannot say enough good about the CESA 11 Head Start program in Colfax.
“I am in my fifteenth year in Head Start,” she said.
This is also Sonnentag’s last year in Head Start.
On the day of Sonnentag’s last “parent meeting” June 3, her oldest daughter, Annie, turned 19 that day, and her youngest, Michael, at age 4, was headed over to Colfax Elementary with his Head Start class to tour the grade school and see where he will be going to school this fall.
“There is something about having those kids ready for 4K. Being in a rural community, there is such a gap. There are not a lot of opportunities for parents with young children to get together before they start school,” Sonnentag said.
Sonnentag and her husband, Louis, farm not far from the Bloomer school district boundary line, although their farm is located in the Colfax school district.
“In the bigger cities, they have play groups and drop-in play areas, but in a community this size, it’s not there, or at least not that I could find,” she said.
In addition to farming — and parenting — Sonnentag also works in a hospital.
Colfax does not have a licensed group-daycare, and the only daycare services are in-home providers, Sonnentag noted.
“Head Start has been an excellent opportunity for my kids to get together and be around other kids and learn social skills. We’ve always been out on the farm. When Annie was small, we did have some kids in the neighborhood … [but] people don’t know their neighbors like they used to. And there are no opportunities for people to get to know their neighbors. This fills the gap,” Sonnentag said.
The Colfax Public Library does have story-time once a week during the school year, and that’s useful to help children socialize with other children and for parents to meet other parents, she said.
“But this goes year-round. You do activities outside of the Center. You’re getting together and meeting other families,” Sonnentag said.
“I want to let people know it’s here. Come to an open house. Come and check it out,” she said.
“I found out about Head Start — and you have to laugh at the way you find things out — my best friend’s sister-in-law was a bus driver for the Cameron Head Start. That’s how I found out about Head Start. And I’ve lived in Colfax my whole life. I went to school here all 13 years in the Colfax school district. I didn’t have a clue Head Start was in the community,” Sonnentag said.
“I can’t say enough about the program. When I think about all of the things I’ve been able to do over the years. Finding out what’s in the community for socialization for young kids on a budget. Things that we still do now. The play groups. The parks we’ve gone to,” she said.
“I had never been to Wakanda Park in Menomonie until I started in Head Start, because we live near the edge of the Bloomer school district, and we just didn’t do things in Menomonie,” Sonnentag said.
Head Start even provides opportunities to try different kinds of foods.
“Just the things we learned as a family, the different foods that we tried. I’d never had a homemade tamale until I was in Head Start. We had a family who were Hispanic, and they made homemade tamales. That was my first homemade tamale,” Sonnentag said.
Sonnentag works in a hospital, but she credits Head Start with helping her to save the life of one of her children.
“I had taken CPR here. We went through the whole infant choking. My Rosie, who is now 11 years old, almost 12, was choking on a dry piece of cereal one morning. I knew exactly what to do. Grab that kid, two back whacks, and it was out. That was a skill I learned here in Head Start. I work in a hospital, but nine times out of 10 when we get them, the paramedics already have the airway established. We’re just giving them drugs and bringing them back,” Sonnentag said.
“I don’t know if I would have been able to respond as quickly without being taught. So, yes. Head Start saved my child’s life. It taught us excellent skills. Made us try new foods. Helped us meet new people. Got us out of our shell in a rural community where there is not a lot of opportunity for socialization for parents with small kids,” she said.
“This is kind of sad. It’s my last parent meeting. I’ve been coming for 15 years. So now I don’t know what I’m going to do! Maybe I’ll have to stop by and wean myself off slowly,” Sonnentag said.
It was a little difficult to tell if she was joking.
The Head Start teachers attending the parents’ meeting indicated they would be delighted if she would stop by from time to time.
Sonnentag noted when children finish the Head Start program, it is often not the end of the association between the students who had been in the program or with other parents.
“I was at a middle school track meet about a month ago. And I ran into a mom at the concessions stand who had a kid in Head Start when I did. Now he’s in middle school, almost high school. He was a little guy who is now a big guy. And she said, ‘Oh, I remember you! How’s it going?” Sonnentag said.
“I ran into someone at a church picnic in Tilden. ‘Oh, I remember you from Head Start. How are your kids?’ So yes, the people you meet here, you are going to meet them out in the community somewhere along the line,” she said.
“You get to know people and make friends, and your kids get to make friends. I think some of the people Dennis is going to graduate with next year, he’s had with him since Head Start. You make lifelong friends here. You’ll see them when they are three or four and just starting to make their way in the world, and then you see them when they’re grown up and when they graduate,” she said.
Head Start “is in your community of origin,” so to speak, Sonnentag said.
“It does take a village. I had attended a Health Watch meeting, because I wear a lot of hats, when I’m not a mom, when I’m not on the farm, when I’m not at work. I was on a Health Watch committee, and the question was, how many people could you turn to if you had a crisis? If you had food insecurity, or your house burns down. And I thought to myself, I don’t know what some people would do. If you were a nuclear family, and you had just moved to the area, and you had no one outside your immediate family, what would you do?” Sonnentag asked.
“I think that’s what makes these small towns such a gem. People care about each other. We have to care about each other. Yes, everybody knows everything about everybody in a small town, but then everybody knows everybody. People come together. They help each other,” she said.
“That’s what you do in a small town, because you rely on each other. You can’t be an island. If you don’t speak English as a first language, what do you do when you move to a community? How do you get any help if you need it? We definitely need to have these opportunities for people in rural areas,” Sonnentag said.
Head Start also helps parents determine if their children are meeting developmental milestones.
“God love this poor child,” Sonnentag said, indicating her daughter, Annie.
“They go through the breathing and all this kind of stuff — then you have the baby. We took her home. Laid her in the crib. And then my husband and I looked at each other and said, ‘Now what?’ I think we’ve been saying that every day since. Now what? No one gives you the blueprint. You have to figure it out,” she said.
“I wasn’t a super-young parent, but of all of my friends, I was the first one to be a parent. So then all my friends asked me, ‘What do you do with this thing?’ I don’t know. I have no idea. Head Start said, ‘This is what we’re going to do’ … I needed somebody who had experience in child development to say, ‘This is how you deal with the tantrum.’ ‘This is how you deal with it when they don’t want to go to bed.’ ‘This is how you start potty training,’” she said.
“I had to laugh at my mother. I asked, ‘How old was I when I got my first tooth?’ She said, ‘I think you had them when you started kindergarten.’ I clearly needed something a little more,” Sonnentag said.
“I needed more guidance. This program really helped me. This is what you should expect for a three-year-old. You don’t want to set the bar so high that you’re frustrated, and the child is frustrated. But it’s your first kid. So you don’t know what to expect … I was glad there were people in the world to help me figure it out,” she said.
“I’m grateful for Head Start and the school district. There’s been a good collaboration … You need to have a good strong community. What’s going to make a good strong community? If you turn out a well-developed, well-educated future. That’s what is going to make the difference,” Sonnentag said.
“We have to make the community appealing so they stay here. We don’t have crazy industry. We don’t have what draws people to the city. But that’s also what drives people out of the city. Who wants to live in a block where no one talks to each other, and you have no one to rely on for miles around? What keeps people in a small town? It’s your community,” Sonnentag said.
“I’m grateful for the program, and I hope other people get on board and get excited about it. Out of all of the people over the years, I’ve never heard anybody say, ‘that was a waste of time.’ I’ve never heard anything negative,” she said.
“I hope people will get interested in the program, and I can pass it on. Now that my youngest is moving on to the junior kindergarten classroom, if I can do one final thing to say join Head Start, and bring a friend or two, that’s my goal,” she said.
The day the Colfax Messenger spoke with Sonnentag, “they are actually helping them make the transition today because they’re going to visit the 4K classroom,” Sonnentag said.
“They’ve already walked over to the bus garage to meet the bus drivers. They’re already working on the transition. They are comfortable here, but life transitions. We don’t stay static. We have to make those transitions. Using their area of safety to help make the transition makes it easier later to make the big transitions,” she said.
Head Start offers Three-year-old Preschool with four full school days per week, three free nutritious meals and transportation as available, with a strong focus on social and emotional skills, support for family wellness, and workshops, home visits and conferences.
Head Start also offers the Early Head Start Home Visit Program to serve pregnant women and families with infants and toddlers up to age three. The Home Visit program offers two socializations per month with free nutritious meals and weekly home visits as well as developmental screenings and parenting support.
CESA 11 Colfax Head Start is located at 704 Sletten Street in Colfax.
For more information or to apply online, visit www.headstart.cesa11.k12.wi.us/colfax. You can also find them on Facebook, or call 715-962-3671.