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Kelly Nipp of Bemidji and his son Kadyn, 17 months, play with playdough Saturday morning during the Tiny Tots Expo at the Boys & Girls Club of the Bemidji Area. The Bemidji Area Early Childhood Initiative held the event where 48 exhibitors provided information to families of young children and offered games and activities. Pioneer Photo/Michelle Bedard

Programs focus on young children

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The Bemidji area's youngest children and their families recently strolled around the Tiny Tots Expo in Bemidji.

While there, they gathered information about local agencies, played games and took part in other activities.

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The annual expo, which was held Saturday morning at the Boys & Girls Club of the Bemidji Area, is one of several programs of the Bemidji Area Early Childhood Initiative.

For nearly four years, the initiative has been serving the area's youngest children and the people who care for them.

A project of the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, the initiative envisions a community that supports the healthy growth and development of children from birth to age 5, enabling them to enter kindergarten ready to succeed.

"Our focus is specifically on before they go to school," said Vicki Wangberg, who co-coordinates the initiative with Ginny Kurtzweg.

"So much of child development and brain development happens before they get to school," added Lin Backstrom, early childhood development specialist with the foundation.

She said it's important for the whole community to understand that so that every child gets the nurturing and learning opportunities they need to develop their full potential.

All of society benefits when young children grow up ready to thrive, Backstrom said.

Guiding the initiative are six priorities. They are the following:

-- Offering increased mental health services for young children, their families and caregivers to promote emotional wellness.

-- Providing training, resources and networking for family child care providers for increased quality and support.

-- Developing innovative parent education opportunities and outreach.

-- Providing creative community activities for families with young children, at a low cost or free, while promoting and building on what is already being offered.

-- Promoting advocacy for young children through grassroot organizing and public policy.

-- Planning with all early care and education professionals, parents and K-12 staff for smooth transitions to kindergarten.

Reaching out

Along with the Tiny Tots Expo, the initiative offers several other programs.

It is organizing the eighth annual United for Children Conference scheduled for April 18 in Park Rapids. The conference is designed to enhance the skills of early care and educational professionals.

Other programs offered by the initiative or the initiative and partners are the following:

-- Coffee with Candidates informs candidates about the issues facing young children and their families.

-- Family Toybox offers mental health outreach and treatment to young children and their families.

-- Gather and Grow Sessions provide training and networking for child care providers.

-- Child Care Connections: Art, Literacy, Music and Science Education offers onsite delivery of art, literacy, music and science curriculum.

-- Single Parent Class offers ongoing research and education for single parents to teach effective parenting skills.

-- Fathers Reading Every Day holds events to engage families with their children and teach the importance of literacy.

-- Ready Set Grow provides information, resources and strategies to get every child in the Bemidji area ready for kindergarten and create a smooth transition for families.

Also, about six times per year, the initiative recognizes local businesses as Early Childhood Champions for supporting young children and their families. Past winners include businesses that provide a children's play area, a stepstool in the bathroom for children or flexibility for parents to attend their child's activities.

Bemidji and beyond

The Bemidji Area Early Childhood Initiative, part of the Minnesota Early Childhood Initiative, began in November 2005. It is one of 80 such community coalitions in Minnesota.

"They bring people together and make things happen for young kids and their families," Backstrom said.

The local initiative started with $40,000 from a McKnight Foundation grant and other grants.

"We have used most of the money and now we are looking to sustain these programs," Wangberg said.

She said the initiative is now asking the community to sustain its programs by giving support financially.

To support the initiative financially or contact the initiative, call the Northwest Minnesota Foundation at 759-2057.

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