Thunder Hawk Care program receives Friends of Education Award

Jessica Stölen-Jacobson
Montevideo American-News

Last week, the Montevideo Community Education’s Thunder Hawk Care program was awarded the Montevideo Public School’s Friends of Education Award for the ’20/’21 school year. The award is given to those nominated by school staff members each year. The Thunder Hawk Care program has been in existence since 1996 and currently employs 46 staff members. Over the last school year, Thunder Hawk Care provided childcare and early education services for children ages six-weeks through 7th grade with 185 students enrolled. So far this summer there are 165 students enrolled with registrations still coming in. The program is divided into categories by age, with the babies through pre-schoolers attending Little Thunder Hawk Care and the kindergarten through 6th graders attending Junior Thunder Hawk Care. Each program offers opportunities based on the age group care is provided for.

Junior Thunder Hawk activities can include cooking projects, art activities, science activities, STEM projects, and during non-COVID times, field trips. Program coordinator Trisha Lien says, “On any given day, at any given time there are multiple activities offered and the kids have the opportunity to choose what they want to do and when they want to do it. We also coordinate and walk them to and from their summer rec activities. Summer is just a lot of fun, relaxation, and activities.” Lien acknowledges how important it is to provide opportunities for activities that the kids can be excited about. “I know that a lot of these kiddos don’t get to spend their summer away from home. Their friends are bragging about what they did over the summer and where they went and these kiddos are still in school essentially year-round and so we want to give them the opportunity to have just as much to share and be excited about that they did over the summer when they return to school so that while their friends are talking about the trips that they take, and sitting by the pool I want our kids to be able to do the same thing and say they got to go to the zoo and do all the 4-H activities every week, and we got do cooking projects and science projects, and we got to go to the track and play. I want them to be just as excited about their summer experience as the children that are at home,” she says. Over the last year, the staff had to adjust to the ever-changing learning modules the school was following due to the COVID pandemic-related closures. “During the school year, this year that was obviously new for us but to aid and assist and provide distance learning help in child care was something that we don’t normally do. Thunder Hawks Care is not typically open all day every day during the school year. We typically operate before and after the school day and on non-school days during the school year,” Lien says. “We were open for 12 hours a day from 5:45 to 5:45 every day during the school year last year including non-school days. In addition to that, it’s a lot of out-of-school-time activities… things that give them the opportunity to have a break from their regular school day, allows them to have free choice - having a say in what they do.”

 Little thunder hawks operate year-round and stay fairly consistent with programming, however, in the summer some additional preschoolers take part in the program before going into kindergarten. “Little Thunder Hawks are curriculum-based and they have activities they follow every day with storytime, circle time, manipulative, letter recognition, number recognition, sensory, fine motor, large motor - they have activities that they work on and then they’ll also get to do a lot of fun stuff,” Lien says. “They do a lot of water activities and such and if things change and start to get better they’ll start to go on field trips.” Little Thunder Hawks also have presentations (pre-COVID) such as Public Health activities and Little People’s Garden classes, as well as having time with 4-H participants to learn about those types of activities.

With all of the changes and challenges presented during the COVID-19 pandemic, Community Ed program Assistant Marie Reszel felt like it was the best time to nominate the Thunder Hawk Care program for the Friends of Education award. Reszel said, ”They are the unsung heroes of this pandemic for our school district. Trisha Lien as the coordinator and all the Little Thunder Hawk Care and Junior Thunder Hawk Care staff members, took care of all the Tier 1 employees' children all while not knowing how their own health would be affected in the process. The staff never got to work from home like the rest of the district and continued to show up with smiles on their masked faces to welcome the kids and make them feel safe. The staff was flexible and adaptable, waiting for decisions on what the new school learning mode would be each week and had to adjust staffing needs, technology needs, last-minute schedule, and transportation changes for kids all on a limited budget and with a lot of new staff. They had to switch buildings three times and often were willing, without hesitation, to come in over the weekend to be as ready as they could for a different learning mode on Monday mornings. They did their best to help families, students, parents, and teachers get through some of the hardest times we've ever had and often without little recognition or thanks.”

Lien said that this year presented so many challenges to the staff that she wasn’t sure how they would manage, but that she couldn’t be more proud of the group of staff members and how they handled the situation. “It makes me emotional just to think about it. I couldn’t think of a group who deserves this more,” Lien said. “There’s no way that I could have anticipated them rolling with the punches the way that they did and they did it so gracefully and so willingly and with such passion for what they do. I couldn’t be more proud of the work that they’ve done and the way that they’ve come together this year to do whatever was needed for those families.”

Reszel adds, “Thank you to them all doesn't even begin to cover how important and valued their efforts were. We also want to thank Trinity Lutheran Church, United Methodist, and the TACC for their amazing work and collaboration during this time and allowing us to have our JTH program at their facilities throughout this past year. It truly did take all of us together to make it through this year. The bus garage was also key in providing the transportation to the Tier 1 families and did an outstanding job with the numerous changes in learning modes and schedules.”