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By Teri Banas
FOREST TWP, Cheboygan County – On a bright Saturday in mid-May in a rural park in the “tip of the mitten,” Melinda Hambleton surveyed the cheerful scene around her and felt a sunburst of pride in her community.
Amidst the gunny sack races, hoola hoop contests and watermelon-spitting contest, 300 families and local businesses had come together in a way that made a big impression on the Great Start coordinator.
No one had said no to her request to help sponsor a Family Fun Day in recognition of Star Power Day 2012 and a full-on observation of the importance of early childhood.
Not the riding stable operator who provided ponies for the kids to ride. Not the petting zoo operator who brought goats, sheep and bunnies.
Not the local Forest Township dignitaries who kicked in the rental for a kiddie bounce house.
Not the local nursery that brought flowers for children to plant in pots as gifts for their moms for Mother’s Day.
Not the various child care and early learning center educators who set up activities tables of science experiments and other fun crafts for children and families to experience together.
And certainly not the local merchant who sent over ice cream. “We didn’t have any money for all that,” exclaimed a jubilant Hambleton, recounting the day’s event and the people who made it possible.
All afternoon, parents with young children in tow kept giving her an opportunity to spotlight the work and outreach of the Great Start Collaborative for Cheboygan, Otsego and Presque Isle Counties and its mighty Parent Coalition. Throughout the day, she was approached with questions: “Now who put this on again and what do you do? Are you going to do this again?”
Spectators attending a nearby baseball tournament drifted over to explore the happening, and as a result learned about Great Start and its work in early childhood.
To be frank, Hambleton said she didn’t envision things would turn out so well. She was initially worried when she first learned Star Power this year was morphing into a different kind of observance -- one that didn’t involve a major march on the Capitol with thousands of Star Power enthusiasts from around the state. And one that used a “virtual” presentation to collect supporters’ pledges online.
“At first, I was a little upset we weren’t going to go to Lansing,” she said. “Our families had really enjoyed it in the past, and I didn’t know how we would do a local event.”
But Hambleton said her uncertainty evaporated as local contacts came through to help the Collaborative throw the rare community celebration and acknowledgement of families with young children.
Like sending a pebble into a lake, there was a ripple effect in measurable and less obvious ways, she observed.
Results were surprising.
More than 430 people signed the Star Power pledge despite the rural area’s sparse population centers. The group’s “likes” on Facebook shot up.
Presque Isle Parent Liaison Jessica Cole, a woman who loves a challenge, set a 100-signature target for herself and reached her goal.
Asking for a $5 donation per family, the group also raised $432 dollars for local child care and early learning scholarships that day. And they signed up 30 new Parent Coalition members that day.
On top of that, local Forest Township officials, moved by the happy turnout, became invigorated to do more to provide recreation for families of young children in their community. “The local township is now thinking of putting together a summer rec program a couple of days a week because there’s so little child care here,” she said.
“It’s been really amazing. We definitely have gained more awareness for early childhood doing it this way,” said Hamilton in reflection. “Our email list has increased. People have told us, ‘Hey, let us know when the next meeting is. And if you do this again, we want to be a part of it.’’
Hambleton said the event affirmed the value of creating community occasions for families to learn about the importance of early childhood. “We had people who were there for the full four hours who didn’t want to go. People had a wonderful time,” she added.
Personal lives were also touched, she added. A young cash-strapped father, whose daughter lives downstate, found a new community for his 7 year old and himself to enjoy when she visits dad.
Insisting he volunteer because “I don’t want to be there for free,” dad and daughter had a great time scooping ice cream for the day. “The next day he sent me a message saying, ‘No one has ever asked me to be part of something before. I felt like I really needed that day.’ ”