By MICHELLE BROOKS
RUSSELLVILLE - This summer the Russellville Parents As Teachers program has been busy buying age- and skill-appropriate books, toys and materials to fill and expanded space.
Thanks to two grants awarded this spring, the program serving about 70 families has added a safe, Lend and Learn Play Center.
In her eight years with the Russellville PAT, Coordinator Heidi Nichols has seen the program when it was largely funded through the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. And she experienced the major state-level cuts in 2010.
These grants restore the program to where it was during its growth period, Nichols said.
The First Chance for Children grant for $20,000 was approved in May. That will almost double the PAT budget, Nichols said.
"We used to be able to serve families to a better capacity," Nichols said.
When the steep cuts came, the Russellville PAT reduced the number of group programs.
The First Chance grant's Lend and Learn Play Center will allow more frequent group programs to resume.
In addition to a new space for weekly play groups and socialization, the center has been stocked with educational toys and books, which families may check out.
"We are excited for our families," Nichols said. "We've known for years we haven't been giving all that they need; this changes that.
"We can fully meet needs, not hit and miss."
The PAT also is among the first recipients of the newly-formed Russellville School Foundation grants.
The second grant helped finish the play center with safety items, including gates and floor mats. And it provided a comfortable place for nursing mothers.
"When we bring in infants and toddlers to the building on a regular basis, it needs to be safe for them," Nichols said.
For many families, the PAT is their first encounter with the school district, Nichols said.
"We're teaching parents how to prepare children for school," Nichols said.
For example, reading readiness is a key for the earliest grade levels. The PAT encourages parents in ways to model a love of literacy.
More space and more resources will help the Parents As Teacher program continue its mission.
The center has specialized areas for infants, gross motor skills and pretend play.
The PAT program is targeted toward infants to age 3. But the new center is available through pre-kindergarten.
Nichols said she is looking forward to actively recruiting new families this fall, something they haven't been able to do much in the last few years.
The boost to the PAT program did require relocating the occupation and physical therapists, who had shared the room.
"It's nice to have twice the size; we're glad to have it," Nichols said.