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McConnell 'Heroes at Home' program helps military children

Tish Holmes holds her daughter, Savannah, while she names colors of puzzle pieces for Stephanie Shellenbarger Nov. 25, 2009, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. The Parents as Teachers Heroes at Home is a free program designed to help parents enhance their child's development of language and social and intellectual growth. Mrs. Holmes is a McConnell Air Force Base family member and Ms. Shellenbarger is a PAT-HAH educator. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Chyrece Campbell)

Tish Holmes holds her daughter, Savannah, while she names colors of puzzle pieces for Stephanie Shellenbarger Nov. 25, 2009, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. The Parents as Teachers Heroes at Home is a free program designed to help parents enhance their child's development of language and social and intellectual growth. Mrs. Holmes is a McConnell Air Force Base family member and Ms. Shellenbarger is a PAT-HAH educator. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Chyrece Campbell)

McConnell family member Savannah Holmes plays with a puzzle Nov. 25, 2009, while Stephanie Shellenbarger observes her motor skills at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. The Parents as Teachers Heroes at Home parent educator program offers servicemembers, military spouses and expecting mothers family support and education for their children before they enter kindergarten. Ms. Shellenbarger is a PAT-HAH educator. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Chyrece Campbell)

Savannah Holmes plays with a puzzle Nov. 25, 2009, while Stephanie Shellenbarger observes her motor skills at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. The Parents as Teachers Heroes at Home parent educator program offers servicemembers, military spouses and expecting mothers family support and education for their children before they enter kindergarten. Ms. Shellenbarger is a PAT-HAH educator. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Chyrece Campbell)

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. (AFNS) -- The Parents as Teachers Heroes at Home program offers servicemembers and military spouses here free family support and education for their children, prenatal to three years old.  

The Department of Defense provides funding for the program at installations with high deployment rates. Currently, two certified parent educators at McConnell Air Force Base, help more than 50 families in the program.

"(Educators) help parents understand their child's brain development," said Stephanie Shellenbarger, a PAT-HAH parent educator. "During the child's first couple years, the brain grows faster than any other time in their lives, so it's important to give parents ideas and activities to enhance their child's learning."

McConnell AFB is one of four Air Force bases to offer PAT-HAH, which brings schooling into military homes with personal visits, provides developmental screenings for each child, and offers parent group meetings and playgroups.

"'Heroes at Home' is an expansion program within the Parents as Teachers National Center, a larger program found in local school communities," Ms.  Shellenbarger said. 

Since 2006 the PAT-HAH program has adapted to meet the needs of the military family and has grown to more than 35 installations.

"Military families and its pregnant women are distinctively important in receiving child development information," she said. "Military families are often isolated from their close families and friends who would otherwise help them out at home."

Ms. Shellenbager and fellow parent educator, Tammy Ferweda, make personal visits to families' residences to share child development information and work on ways to improve parent practices.

"We bring activities that parents and their children can share together, where there is always an aspect of literacy," Ms. Shellenbarger said.

The two women also visit families on Saturdays and during the evening hours.

"We try our best to meet the needs of the family," she said.

For those families expecting a baby, PAT-HAH helps women understand the importance of bonding with her child before it is born. The parent educators also conduct child screening at the parents' homes to ensure their children are comfortable in their natural environment.

"The screenings are observations, where in some cases, more time is spent focusing on a child's hearing, vision and health than what they may receive during a routine doctor's visit," she said.

The educators said they can help with the early detection of child developmental delays, evaluate learning abilities and help parents become more confident in their parenting role.

At an initial PAT-HAH visit to a McConnell AFB family home, two-year-old Savannah Holmes not only learned a couple interactive songs, but she taught her mother a couple new things.

"I didn't know my daughter knew her colors and could match puzzle pieces yet," said Tish Holmes, Savannah's mother. "I see that she's on track for her age."

Mrs. Holmes enrolled in the program because she said Savannah is still too young for pre-school and wanted her to be prepared. Even though Savannah is not carrying books, doing homework or sitting among her classmates yet, she still has the opportunity to interact and learn with other children.

The mother and daughter can attend play groups together hosted by PAT-HAH educators. McConnell  AFB offers 10 play groups each week, some with specific themes that focuse on parent/child interaction with music and movement.

"The play groups give a child a chance to socialize with other children and the parent a chance to socialize with other parents," Ms. Shellenbarger said. 

Children who have participated in Parents as Teachers programs are significantly more advanced in language, social development, problem solving and other cognitive abilities and score higher on kindergarten readiness tests compared to children not in the programs, Ms. Shellenbarger said. 

Beginning January 2010, PAT-HAH is open for McConnell AFB children up to age five who don't meet the qualification to begin kindergarten. 

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