UW-La Crosse students have teamed up with a Gundersen Health System family therapist to help build stronger families in the La Crosse community.
Walk into Gundersen Health System on a Tuesday evening and find a group of kids singing along with UW-L students to the tune of “Bumblebee Tuna.” They watch intently as the college students make sock puppets talk and transform a simple rope into an imaginary train.
A total of 18 student interns volunteer to develop and lead child programming that happens alongside parent programs offered through Gundersen. The college students provide not only childcare, but also non-violent, non-competitive games and activities centered around themes such as emotion recognition and regulation, kindness, friendship and problem solving.
Jeff Reiland, UW-L adjunct professor of psychology and child and family therapist at Gundersen, recruited the students from various UW-L programs to help him with a growing struggle he sees among area families. Parenting was never simple, he says, but new technology has made the job even more difficult.
“Parents, more than ever, struggle with how to relate to children because there are so many more distractions,” he explains. “Families are increasingly plugged in, but disconnected from each other.”
Reiland has devoted much of his 28-year career to teaching parents strategies with their kids. In fall 2012 he launched Triple P (Positive Parenting Program) for parents whose children have diagnoses such as ADHD or Oppositional Defiant Disorder who are struggling with behavioral or emotional difficulties. However, Reiland was disappointed when many of the parents had to drop out because they had no childcare during program hours. That’s when he decided to recruit UW-L student volunteers who would join him on the quest to build better families.
Parent programs wouldn’t be possible without the UW-L student help, says Reiland.
“Parents wouldn’t come. They couldn’t afford to come,” he says. “These students have helped eliminate the biggest barrier to parent education.”
“It’s exciting because this child programming is relatively new,” says UW-L senior Kristin Ammerman, a therapeutic recreation and psychology major. “Jeff said, ‘Come in with as many ideas as you have. We want to create these programs together.’”
“It’s rewarding to work in the La Crosse community and see the change locally,” adds UW-L senior Alycia Brun, a psychology major.
In addition to Triple P, a new program is available this year called Parents Raising Resilient Children, a prevention program open to any parents interested in learning effective tools and strategies to raise healthy and resilient children. Both Triple P and Parents Raising Resilient Children are eight weeks long and are offered through Gundersen Health System. The next session of Triple P starts in October. Attendees are typically referred. Parents Raising Resilient Children is a free program offered to any interested parents year-round with rolling enrollment.
Reiland laments that all he can offer students in exchange for their time is a meal before the program begins. The students use the time to plan activities and games not only to keep the kids occupied, but also help them learn and grow in the same ways their parents are.
UW-L interns have witnessed a transformation over the weeks as kids build friendships, break out of their shells, participate, listen and learn to be kind.
The first day of the program intern Victoria Smithyman recalls how the kids all walked timidly in the door. “Now, they come running in,” she notes.
“We see siblings who used to use each other as a crutch who now can be in smaller groups without their siblings,” says Ammerman. “It’s been cool to see that kind of growth and independence.”
The group also provides a strong support network for the kids.
“We are talking about hard situations like getting bullied. This is a safe setting for them to talk about things they are not talking about at home or school,” says Brun.
Moreover, the parents who pick up their kids witness the positive and inspiring interaction with the interns, notes Reiland.
UW-L junior Anna Kelsey, a therapeutic recreation major, says while the kids and parents have benefited from the programs, she has too.
“I’m a relatively shy person, so when it comes to getting in front of all the kids and facilitating events, it was nerve-racking at first,” she says. “I can tell I’ve grown.”
Ammerman agrees she has seen a transformation in herself. “I’ve learned so much from Jeff and how he gives feedback and builds his teams,” she says. “If I were to become a supervisor in the future, I can see how I would like to treat my staff.”
Reiland says his parent programs started with the goal of improving community health. When cumulative bad things happen in childhood such as divorce, violence, addiction, child maltreatment or neglect, kids can develop significant health problems later in life such as cancer or diabetes, studies have shown.
Reiland is looking for interns interested in participating in the program this summer or fall semester. Apply through UW-L Career Services.
Learn more about the Parents Raising Resilient Children program at gundersenhealth.org/behavioral-health or contact Gundersen’s parent education line at 608.775.4419