As the Wisconsin Badgers football team takes the field at Camp Randall Stadium for their annual Spring Game on April 21, there will be thousands of fans cheering on their favorite team.
In turn, every Badger fan in Camp Randall on that day will be spreading cheer to families in the Waisman Early Childhood Program (WECP), an inclusive preschool with a developmentally diverse enrollment at the UW-Madison Waisman Center.
Proceeds from the Spring Game will go toward a scholarship fund for children in the WECP, where one third of the children have special education needs.
“The scholarship fund has a direct and immediate impact on children in our preschool program, many of whom have disabilities,” says Albee Messing, director of the Waisman Center. “Increasing this fund will give more families access to assistance for tuition and therapy, urgent needs many currently cannot afford.”
“The cost of early childhood care and education can be prohibitive for many families,” says Joan Ershler, director of the WECP. “Salaries and wages have not kept pace with the cost of preschool, and research has shown that children who may benefit the most from high-quality early education are often least able to access it.”
The scholarship fund provides vital support to many families. “It was a crucial component in helping us send our children to the school,” says Jane and Randolph Lambert, whose son Cyrus and daughter Ruby both attended the WECP. “We couldn’t have done it without the scholarship.”
Cyrus was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder as a young child. Being able to attend an inclusive preschool like the WECP was vital for his development, says his parents.
“At the WECP, children with disabilities were included and accepted in all the activities,” says Randolph. “It really brought a sense of belonging to Cyrus, and to other children with disabilities.”
“The leadership at the WECP has the expectation that all children be respected and Cyrus started his schooling in an inclusive, welcoming atmosphere,” says Jane. “Today, he is 19-years-old, has just graduated from high school, has a real job and a paycheck, and he expects to be included in all spheres of life; his time with the WECP set the stage for all of this.”
The cost of raising a child with special needs is often higher than that of raising a typically developing child because children with special needs can require specialized equipment and therapies. The WECP is unique in that it provides speech-language and occupational therapies to the children who attend it; the scholarship fund helps families pay for these services as well.
“During the time that Cyrus was at the WECP, we had many additional out-of-pocket expenses for his care, and it was a huge stretch financially,” says Randolph.
But all costs for Cyrus’ therapy sessions at the WECP were covered by the scholarhip fund. At the WECP, Cyrus saw a speech-language therapist starting when he was 3-years-old until he was 6. “He also received occupational therapy (OT) services, and it helped with his motor skills tremendously,” says Randolph.
It is a mission of the WECP to be truly inclusive, says Ershler. “We value diversity not only in terms of ethnicity/race, but in terms of disability and developmental status, life style, and family composition,” she says. “We want children to leave the WECP valuing individual differences, having the disposition to learn throughout their lifespan, and recognizing not only their own points of view but also those of others.”
Preschool is vital for all children, those with disabilities and those who are typically developing. In fact, “the greatest amount of brain growth occurs during the early years; it’s the time that the opportunity for learning essential life skills is greatest,” says Ershler.
Proceeds from the Spring Football game will help the WECP provide more scholarship support to families at this crucial time in children’s lives.
“For some families, child care costs can account for half of their income,” says Ershler. “I would like to see child care account for not more than a quarter of a family’s annual income at most.”
Supporting and investing in preschool education and the WECP is an investment in the future, says Jane. “It’s not only beneficial now, but because the day-to-day learning that happens in preschool shapes the rest of our lives, it benefits so many people throughout their lives.”
And we can all cheer for that.
By Adityarup “Rup” Chakravorty