When Rissel Sanderson received a letter in the mail from the Project Rainbow’s Rhumba 4 Rainbow committee telling her that she was going to be the 2013 Extra Mile award winner, she could not believe it.
“I was so excited to get that award,” Sanderson tells The Madison Times in an interview at the Goodman Community Center. “It means a lot to me that people notice what I do. Especially with the type of job I have working with children and families. I've always worked with low-income families and children with high needs and I've always tried to help out as much as I can. To be recognized for that is just wonderful. To see the great people who have gotten this award before me and be in their company … that is amazing, too.”
The 9th Annual Rhumba 4 Rainbow, Madison's premier salsa event and charity fundraiser to prevent child abuse, will be held Friday, Sept. 27, at UW-Madison's Union South. It is hosted every year by the Rainbow Project, a local non-profit child and family counseling and resource clinic providing treatment and early intervention for young children who have experienced trauma, including child sexual abuse, child abuse, neglect, or exposure to domestic or community violence.
For the past seven years, Sanderson has been the project leader for Madison Metropolitan School District's Play and Learn, a fun and engaging free-of-charge program for children ages birth to 5 and for their caregivers. Play and Learn started as a pilot program about 8 years ago at Vera Court and Allied Drive Neighborhood Centers and has been expanding every year. “They did research to see what areas had high need and they found that a lot of the children before 5 were staying at home with family, friends, and childcare.... so the incentive was to have whoever was watching the kids come once a week. The only requirement is whoever brings the kids must stay the whole 2-and-a-half hours.”
Play and Learn is a collaborative initiative between the Madison Metropolitan School District, Center for Families, Children's Service Society of Wisconsin and United Way of Dane County. Play and Learn outreaches to caregivers in low-income, under-served neighborhoods within the Madison Metropolitan School District attendance areas. When those caregivers come with their child to Play and Learn, they learn about child development, early literacy and math skill development, and are given access to materials and ideas that can be replicated with children in their own homes.
“The children learn early literacy and math and just the concept of learning. We're trying to let families know how their children are reading in different areas. The children are sitting there and listening and learning how to engage with other children and how to share,” Sanderson says. “The parents, just by having conversations amongst themselves, share stories and give each other suggestions. We try to give them lots of ideas where they can do games and easy activities and practice at home. Our curriculum is over 2,000 pages long and there is everything in there. We have a lot of material to give out and a lot of information that is available for parents.”
The Play and Learn sessions provide a learning environment for families who may not have access to similar opportunities and who are not currently participating in similar programs. There are seven Play and Learn groups at four different sites — Darbo Salvation Army, Goodman Community Center, Centro Hispano, and Meadowood Community Center. “Most of my groups are Spanish speaking,” Sanderson says. “I get to see about 150 children because all of the sites are really well attended.”
The families and the children really identify with Sanderson and look forward to coming in for Play and Learn. There are two Play and Learn trucks that belong to the Madison Metropolitan School District that go from site to site. At each site there is some storage room with all of the Play and Learn materials and it takes about an hour to set it up.
“I think that Play and Learn is an amazing program,” Sanderson says. “There isn't anything else like that in Madison where the parents and the children get to stay on the schedule together. It's a great, great program. I love it. I think it's my dream job.”
Studies have shown that at such an early age, working with children can be huge in determining their success later in life. Children ages 0 to 5 are literally sponges for soaking up information and knowledge.
“Birth to five... that's the window of opportunities — where kids can learn so much,” Sanderson says. “We have so many families who are learning two languages at one time. We are encouraging all of our Latino families to keep Spanish at home because [the kids] learn so fast. That's why we encourage both languages at Play and Learn.”
At the end of the year, Play and Learn does surveys and parent/teacher conferences where they sit down and talk one on one with the parents. “The responses have been amazing. Overwhelming... for the families to talk about how much their child has improved over the year,” Sanderson says. “The other tool that we have is called 'Ages & Stages' that many pediatricians are using now to see how children develop in different areas — language, social, and emotional. It's for every child and it starts at 3 months and goes until they are five years old. The parents are happy to be a part of it, too... they can see exactly how their child is progressing.”
Outside of Play and Learn, Sanderson has been a tremendous part of the Madison community. She's part of the Latino Children and Families Council where she helps organize the gigantic event – El Dia de los Ninos. “We plan that event months in advance and it keeps getting bigger and bigger. It's become a big deal. We hit up to more than 2,000 children. It's a great, great event,”she says.
Sanderson is also on the Madison Public Library board of directors. “We have librarians come to Play and Learn and they tell a story and we have been working on a book a day. It's kind of an incentive. It's amazing how families don't have books at home and if they do they aren't age appropriate,” she says. “We're trying to give our families as many books as I can. Being part of the board, I want to advocate for early literacy, bilingual books for the families. Overall, our Spanish-speaking families don't know that they can get books from the library for free and en espanol, so a part of the board it gives me a little more freedom to talk to people about that.”
She also volunteers at the Rainbow Project and is on the board of directors for Madison's Bolivian Association who just had a huge Independence Day Party at Tenney Park. Her passion is in her community, especially Madison's growing Latino community. She would love to see Play and Learn continue to expand and help more young people.
“I hope that Play and Learn continues to grow. I think we can do more advocacy. My hope is to have a steady classroom some day where we won't have to set things up and take things down every time,” Sanderson says.
“There's so many children and parents who could benefit from just more than one day. It's hard. There are some children who have really fallen behind in some areas and could really use more Play and Learn. It would be nice to be able to do at least two days per week.... maybe even three.”