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Parent educator quick to respond to child's needs after car crash

Parent educator quick to respond to child's needs after car crash

September 9th, 2017 by Phillip Sitter in News

While Karsten Dierking plays with toys at Southwest Early Chilhood Center, his mom, Lisa Dierking, right, visits with Parents as Teachers educator Sara Gretlein. As with home visits and school, Gretlein observes the children, their actions, play style, and interaction with parents and siblings after which she may have suggestions for ways to improve communication, skill development, etc. Dierking is the Family School Advocate at SWECC and Karsten attends the school; both are involved in the PAT program.

Photo by Julie Smith /Fulton Sun.

A Jefferson City mom recently took to Facebook after a traumatic incident to praise the parent educator who serves her daughter, highlighting how the Parents as Teachers program serves local families.

After a recent car crash, Sarah Quick and her 4-year-old daughter, Emma, have their lives and health to be thankful for in addition to Emma's parent educator, Sara Gretlein.

The Quicks were traveling in a 2016 Honda Fit the evening of Aug. 6. As Quick was driving westbound on U.S. 50, just east of Meadow Lane in Osage County, the car went off the right side of the road and collided with a road sign at about 7:45 p.m.

"I still don't know what happened," she posted on Facebook the next day, aside from eyewitness statements that her compact car rolled four or five times.

The smashed-up vehicle came to rest upside down in a grassy field. Fortunately, mom and daughter escaped with only minor injuries, and several bystanders came to their aid. Quick wrote in particular that the field her car landed in belongs to a roofing business owned by Rudy and Matthew Yutzy; the two men packed up her and Emma's personal belongings from the car, stayed with them and let them use their business' restroom.

Emma's injuries went beyond minor physical bruises from the straps and chest clip of her car seat.

"She's afraid of literally everything," Quick said she told Gretlein over the phone when she called to set up her daughter's first monthly home visit after summer break.

After the crash, Quick said, Emma was afraid of riding in a car and being out of her mom's sight. She would wake up at night in terror.

Gretlein adapted her next home visit with Emma as a parent educator, though, and brought some books generally about "dealing with fears," told from a 4-year-old's perspective, Quick said.

She said Emma is still afraid of being in a car in the dark, but her nightmares have mostly stopped. She attributes a lot of that to Gretlein.

"She gave us all these pointers and clues to how we could get over things," Quick said.

Gretlein said she feels parent educators need to be able to think quickly and adapt to families' situations. Once Quick told her about Emma's new needs after the crash, "I'm thinking, OK, I need to adapt that visit to where I'm helping her. How can I help you with the things that are going on with your family right now, with the trauma that Emma's gone through and also mom, too? And so I'm looking for resources to take on that visit."

Gretlein has 21 years of experience as a parent educator. Parents as Teachers programs are mandated in every Missouri school district, and they serve parochial and home-schooled families who reside within district boundaries, too.

Katie Epema, Parents as Teachers coordinator for Jefferson City Public Schools, said the district is serving 661 children in 461 families this year. All Title I-eligible families in the district's preschool programs participate in the PAT program, but participation is open to any family with a child aged pre-natal to just before starting kindergarten.

"It is hard to say goodbye" as children graduate to "big kid school," Gretlein said. She and the district's 11 other full-time parent educators each serve 60-70 children from about 45 families. The educators work around parents' work schedules, even if home visits have to be in the evening or on weekends. At-risk families and those with more needs get two monthly visits.

If families aren't comfortable with home visits, they can come to a special classroom at the district's Southwest Early Childhood Center, Gretlein said.

Regardless of where they meet and when, "we talk about child development, we talk about what they look for their child to be doing," she said. Parent educators bring books and other resources and set up families with additional in-program or community resources as needed.

Epema said while "every visit looks different with every family because we individualize it to their specific needs," there are some basic topics including sleep, safety, health, nutrition and discipline all parent educators cover.

Gretlein said parent educators like her also perform developmental, hearing and vision screenings and can refer families to further services as needed.

PAT is free for all families, though Epema explained a waiting list for home visits has developed after significant state budget cuts in 2009.

Quick said her daughter was on a wait list for about a year after she found out about the program at KidsFest when Emma was 6 months old.

Funding for the PAT program is a separate budget line item than the state's foundation formula for public elementary, middle and high school programs. Epema said the district now contributes more than the state's allocation, and state funding for the program has dipped since 2009 to about 60 percent of what it was. The district's number of full-time parent educators has dropped from 22 to 12, including a recent hire, and case loads have shrunk, too.

"Prior to the budget cuts, we were able to serve a lot more families," Epema said.

"Our recruiting efforts aren't quite the same as what they used to be" because of the post-budget cuts waiting list, she continued, adding, "It feels weird to recruit families knowing they're going to be on a waiting list for a while."

However, she said, "Even if families are waiting for personal visits, we make sure they know they can use drop-in and play (classroom)" and can connect with a parent educator for questions. The center has mass-screening events once a month, "so even if they're not interested in being enrolled or they're not enrolled yet, they can bring their child in" for developmental, hearing and vision screenings and be connected to other resources.

Gretlein has three daughters and said she has incorporated some things she's learned as a parent educator into her own parenting.

"If I've made good connections with a family, if I see them progressing and see that connection that they're building with their child and the growth in the child, all of those things, when I see that in a visit — and I see it all the time — that really makes my day," she said.

"Our goal is to empower the parents to be their children's first, most important teachers, to help them be ready to succeed in school and in life," Epema said. "We like to say everybody can use PAT because kids don't come with instructions."

The PAT program is having a child development screening by appointment from 4-8 p.m. Wednesday at Southwest Early Childhood Center, 812 St. Mary's Blvd. The screening is free and is for any child 3 months to 5 years old who lives within JCPS district boundaries. For more information, visit jcschools.us/Page/12717 or contact Katie Epema at katie.epema@jcschools.us or 573-659-2350. Other dates will be available throughout the school year.