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Head Start opens at 4000 Valley Square, brings the young and senior citizens together

Lorraine Amundson, 91, a resident at 4000 Valley Square, digs in a bin of clay shape cutters Wednesday with Harmony Hall, 4, at the new Head Start site at 4000 Valley Square. Opened on Aug. 30, 2018, this Head Start site is one of only a few in the Midwest to be located within an assisted living facility. (Photo by Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald)1 / 3
Paraprofessional Pam Vervalen (center) talks with Head Start students and 4000 Valley Square residents as they build with clay Wednesday morning in Grand Forks. The Head Start program, located within the assisted living facility, offers intergenerational programming for children and senior citizens alike. (Photo by Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald)2 / 3
Jaxon Villeneuv, 4, shows his clay crocodile to Eileen Hanson (left), 97, at the new Head Start program at 4000 Valley Square on Wednesday morning. At this site, Head Start enrolls 28 children, ranging from 3 to 5 years old, and offers activities that bring together children and residents of 4000 Valley Square. (Photo by Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald)3 / 3

What started out as an idea to have young children in Grand Forks learn and grow in a setting that allows them to build connections with the elderly has come to fruition.

The Head Start classrooms and playground project at 4000 Valley Square has been completed, and 28 children, ranging in age from 3 to 5 years old, are enrolled in the program that started Aug. 30 in its newest location.

It is one of the only programs in the Midwest that's located in an assisted living facility and offers intergenerational programming, said Tracey Johnson, Head Start director for Grand Forks Public Schools.

"We're just so excited," Johnson said about the facility which has two classrooms, with 14 children in each, and a "really beautiful playground."

A teacher, teacher's aide, a paraprofessional—all full-time—and a part-time "float" para are assigned to each classroom, she said.

Johnson is looking forward to the various ways the children will be able to participate in music and art therapy programs at the 4000 Valley Square community.

"We're planning to do art projects with residents," she said. "For example, we'll have a child put their hand in yellow paint and press it on paper, and have the resident put their hand in blue paint and press on top. Then they'll look at the color they made together."

Johnson would like to see an art show, displaying art projects like these and others, take place next spring at 4000 Valley Square, she said.

Helping children develop their gross motor skills—by throwing balls back and forth—is another way residents can interact with the children, she said.

"And at meal time, we serve food family style, so residents are welcome to come in for that too."

Johnson sees the older folks also "doing some planting of a garden or flowers with the children," she said.

"The opportunities are endless," she said.

Part of building renovation

The 4000 Valley Square location was selected as the newest Head Start site because the facility was undergoing extensive remodeling, allowing for the incorporation of Head Start classrooms and playground into the overall design.

The Head Start facility, part of a $10.8 million addition and renovation project at 4000 Valley Square, was funded by donations of $230,000 raised by Valley Memorial Homes, Valley Memorial Foundation, Grand Forks Public Schools, and the Grand Forks Foundation for Education.

The most recent donation was a $40,000 grant from the Otto Bremer Trust.

The Head Start program is based at Lake Agassiz Elementary School, Johnson said, and other programs are conducted at Century Elementary School in Grand Forks and in Grafton, N.D.

Enrollment in the program is limited by the federal government to 187 children, who qualify by their family's income each year.

Mindy Marcus, administrator of Valley Memorial Homes, said she expects the 4000 Valley Square residents and staff "will be slowly incorporating kids within the community."

In recent months, she and other employees have been meeting with Johnson and the Head Start teachers.

"We're told by teachers that the first couple of weeks are a little bit crazy, as the kids are getting used to the new space and the routine," she said.

Marcus is looking forward to residents at the senior living complex "venturing into the Head Start area and the kids venturing out of Head Start and into our neighborhood."

She envisions the elderly and the young getting to know each other, sharing snacks, playing games, baking and creating small art projects together, she said.

"We have music programming, such as our rock band and choir music, that kids and residents can do together," she said.

"I see lots of opportunities for interaction between residents and kids (such as) our residents volunteering to read to the kids, rubbing their backs during naptime."

Others will enjoy watching the children play on the playground and learning in the classroom, she said.

Safe mobility

Because of the special rubberized surface that's been installed in the playground, residents—even those who rely on a wheelchair or walker—can safely join the children there.

Among the residents at 4000 Valley Square, "a lot of people are excited to have kids here," Marcus said.

"Even if they're not going to be involved with the kids, they're excited about watching them," she said.

The level of interaction with kids will be up to the residents, Marcus said.

"(They) can be as involved or as uninvolved as they want to be," she said.

One of the greatest benefits may be the relationships that will form between young and old, Johnson said.

"It's an extension of the family," she said.

She's excited about the chance for kids, especially those who don't have grandparents or older relatives in the area, to have a grandfather or grandmother figure in their lives.

And that street runs both ways.

"A lot of residents don't have connections with young children," she said.

This will provide them with that opportunity.

"It will be fun to see the connections as years go by," Johnson said. "I can see residents helping kids with tying their shoes or zipping up jackets or learning to write their names.

"They can go into the area, or even watch through the windows if they prefer, and see the excitement on the faces as the kids are growing and learning," Johnson said. "Being around kids is so fun; you get to laugh. It's good for the soul."