After 33 years as an Early Childhood Family Educator, Helen Stukel turned in her classroom keys to the Administration at YME on July 1 and began her retirement.

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After 33 years as an Early Childhood Family Educator, Helen Stukel turned in her classroom keys to the Administration at YME on July 1 and began her retirement.
Even though Stukel will no longer be the Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) and School Readiness (SR) Coordinator for YME she continues to believe that a key to a child’s success in school is strongly reflected in the goals of ECFE and SR and that the ‘Important Fun’ will continue to flourish at YME.
“ECFE provides a child’s first and most significant learning environment where parents are a child’s first and most important teachers,” Stukel stated.  She has spent her career to see that ECFE’s goal to enhance the ability of all parents and other family members to provide the best possible environment for their child’s learning and growth is available to local families.  She states, “ECFE is a great time to build strong parent child relationships and provides new friendships for both parents and children.”
She understands that School Readiness (SR) Preschool programs are an important component of early childhood education.  “Play is child’s work,” she shared.  She believes that developmentally appropriate preschool settings offer a variety of fun and meaningful hands-on learning experiences through play using various centers (creative expression, block, manipulatives, book, writing, sensory, dramatic play, literacy and math/science) plus circle time with stories, music and movement.   She explained that classes are designed to develop social-emotional, motor, intellectual and language skills and offer opportunities to practice self-help skills.
When Stukel was attending St. Cloud State she was focused on education and graduated with a B.S. in social studies.  She taught 7th and 8th grade social studies for one year at Fridley Junior High School.  She married Gene Stukel and moved to Granite Falls.  They had their three children Andrea, Melissa and Tom before she had an opportunity to get back into education.  Over the years she taught daycare training and parenting at the AVTI and also taught at the Adult Career Center. At that time there was a strong connection between the AVTI consumer homemaking department and the development of parent and child programs for families of young children under age five.  Those early connections were the beginnings of ECFE programs.
In 1982 she was hired to implement the Project PAT (Parents are Teachers) for families with children birth – 36 months.  Stukel pursued the necessary educational licensure and in 1989 began coordinating ECFE for Granite Falls and Clarkfield. With continued funding through the Minnesota legislature the program expanded to include School Readiness and by the mid-90s Stukel was coordinating the ECFE and SR programs as well as teaching ECFE parent education.
Over the past 30 plus years Stukel has seen many changes and challenges in the early childhood programs. The changes have not been dramatic.  ECFE and SR hold true to their goals and both programs continue to flourish. “The biggest change has been the move of the programs from the YME High School building to the Bert Raney Elementary building.  “The new location provides ongoing transition to kindergarten by developing familiarity with the building, school staff and available activities and services for children and parents plus SR students have access to the playground, library and gym. Children who attend the full day preschool also have the opportunity to eat in the lunch room.”
When asked about the ECFE and SR challenges, Stukel smiled and said, “I feel that ECFE has reached a greater acceptance by the public.  We have moved forward from ‘What are you doing bringing babies and toddlers into the schools?’ The public is more aware of the value of ECFE and SR. She feels that there is a greater understanding of the importance of children needing to learn how to get along with others and practice self-help skills so they can be confident in their school experiences.  
As with any career, there are challenges and rewards. She has seen first-hand the rewards. For the parent/child participants: the support from the staff and other parents as they realize that others are dealing with the same issues as they are; the development of lasting friendships among parents and children; the fun hands-on activities providing  a ‘special’ time for the children with their parents. For the educators:  getting to know the families and children; watching parents and children ‘grow’; seeing the excitement as the children bring backpacks for ‘homework’ just like their older siblings; and watching the joy on a child’s face when their name is sung during circle time or when they try a new sensory or “messy” creative activity that may not be allowed at home.
Helen Stukel sees a bright future for ECFE, SR and herself.  
“Research indicates the value of early childhood education,” Stukel said. She explained that Art Rolnick, former research director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, sounds the argument that Minnesota’s best economic investment is young children.  Rigorous research established the facts that consistently show that early childhood programs help kids enter kindergarten with skills they need to learn and those children continue to be success in school and ultimately become contributing members of society.  Most significantly, the crime rate among those who participate in early childhood education programs falls dramatically.
Her response to being bored in retirement, Stukel replied, “I thoroughly enjoyed my job and the ECFE and SR early childhood and parent education staff and I know I will miss both.  I look forward to having more time with my family, Gene and I have seven grandchildren, add time with friends, reading, biking, piled up home projects, plus being open to teaching short term classes or volunteering at BRE ... I know I will not be bored.”
As a final thought she shared her favorite bumper sticker saying, “Your children need your presence more than your presents.”