We believe that all southwest Minnesota kids are our kids, and that now, more than ever, our kids need us to provide connection, care and encouragement. There is power in each of us. And, we’re even stronger together. More than 300 caring adults logged on to “The Power of One,” a virtual forum hosted by Southwest Initiative Foundation this year. It featured award-winning speaker and bestselling author, Josh Shipp, with an inspiring message: Every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story.
In the virtual audience were Hsa Mu, Parent Student Connector at Marshall Public Schools, and Marie Atkinson-Smeins, Luverne Elementary School Counselor. They are helping our kids write their success stories, which will become the next chapter for our region. Marie has developed an award-winning counseling program recognized at a national level. Hsa has channeled his experience of immigrating to Minnesota from a Thai refugee camp into the work he does welcoming and connecting new families. Both have been part of the work of Grow Our Own, a cradle-to-career approach to ensure southwest Minnesota kids have what they need to succeed.
We checked in with them at the start of the school year to find out more about their experiences in the last year and how their work makes a difference for kids and families.
Marie Atkinson-Smeins, Luverne Elementary School Counselor
When Marie arrived at Luverne Elementary School 33 years ago, having an elementary school counselor was uncommon. With help from teachers, staff and an advisory committee, she’s built the school’s counseling program based on data about what kind of support kids need year-to-year. Last year during the pandemic, when Luverne Elementary was in hybrid learning mode, its 500 students had higher needs.
“When it’s not a consistent learning environment, and sometimes the home situation isn’t a good situation, all of those things can affect learning. The stress of the pandemic, of COVID, that’s scary for adults. If it’s scary for adults, it’s got to be scary and stressful for kids too,” Marie said.
Each classroom – kindergarten through grade 5 – gets visits from Marie twice a month. She uses the Second Step curriculum, a holistic approach to social-emotional learning that explores feelings, emotion management and skills for learning, like listening. She also does small group counseling around friendship, study skills and stress. And Marie helps students with individual counseling when they need it.
During her career, Marie has connected with SWIF for professional development and grants. She’s attended both Grow Our Own summits and taken away new ideas for helping our kids reach their full potential.
“As an elementary school counselor, you become aware of all these resources that are going to help you in your position. I know different places that can help kids and parents, like SWIF. SWIF offers grants, and I’ve really enjoyed some of the speakers they’ve had over the years,” Marie said.
This year, Marie achieved a career milestone when her counseling program was honored by the American School Counselors Association (ASCA) with a “Recognized ASCA Model Program” (RAMP) designation. Eleven schools in Minnesota earned the RAMP distinction this year.
RAMP recognizes schools committed to delivering a comprehensive data informed school counseling program that exemplifies school counseling at its best. The recognition is based on an exhaustive application; Marie has been working toward a RAMP designation for 10 years, with help the last two years from a school counselor in Oklahoma serving as a sounding board.
“This happened because of the wonderful people that I work with and because of all the support that I had. I’m a really spiritual person, so I just believe I don’t accomplish any of this stuff on my own,” Marie said.
Being data-informed means Marie starts the school year looking at attendance, standardized test scores and behavioral slips to see where students are facing challenges in each grade. She builds her goals from what the numbers tell her.
“There’s a lot of factors that go into a year of growth. That’s why you have to narrow it down. It helps you as a starting point. I’m going to look at data and it’s going to help me decide my groups and my classes,” Marie said.
At the end of the year, she checks the numbers to see how much progress was made and what worked to help students succeed.
“The kids that I meet with one-on-one, sometimes I get close to them. And you feel like you’ve helped them. You can just tell with them smiling at you,” Marie said. “Elementary kids love you. They hug you and they appreciate you.”
At the start of the new school year, Marie is hoping to be able to see kids face-to-face and put into action ideas from the ASCA Conference she attended this year to receive the RAMP award.
Hsa Mu, Parent Student Connector at Marshall Public Schools
As a refugee who didn’t speak English at first, the help of caring adults was a big part of Hsa’s journey. He tries to provide that for students and families he’s worked with the last five years as the Karen Parent Student Connector. He first connected with SWIF when we launched Grow Our Own in 2016 and attended both Grow Our Own Summits.
“I feel I have learned a lot by following SWIF personally and professionally,” said Hsa, who is married and a parent to two young boys. “Sharing how much I’ve learned from Southwest Initiative, it’s important for me. … We are blessed that we have such an organization like SWIF in the southwest Minnesota region.”
At Marshall Public Schools, Hsa is a bridge between families and school, a communicator and interpreter who helps parents understand how the school system works and how they can be engaged in their students’ learning. He uses his native Karen language to assist families with busing and enrollments for school, free and reduced lunch applications, interpreting at parent teacher conferences, special education or IEP meetings, and registering for extracurricular activities.
“We have an increasing number (of Karen students) every year. The majority of the Karen families, they have a lot of young families with young kids. We have every year like 20 kindergarteners,” Hsa said.
For these families, the pandemic hit hard. Everything had to be online, and a lot of the Karen families Hsa works with have limited experience with technology. Interpreting is tougher through video, and so is not having home visits. Then in spring, the community suffered the loss of first grader Week Day to COVID-19.
“It was a tough time for me doing my job. I know the family as a friend. I have connection with them through school and Karen community. I tried to be there and support them as a friend, a community member and as a school staff from my work. I helped them with paperwork from the beginning, since preschool,” Hsa said. “It was very, very sad.”
Along with teachers, other staff and community members, Hsa has been there for kids and their families through hardships and frustrations the past year. He looks back at his own path and recognizes how many caring adults helped him along the way. He thinks first of his mother, who was a single parent to five kids. Hsa’s father passed away when Hsa was 4. He thinks of his grandparents, his older brothers and his aunt who helped care for him in their village in Burma, where his mother stayed when Hsa moved to a refugee camp in Thailand at age 12. At the camp and on his journey to the United States, caring adults looked out for him.
“Some adults had to step up and take care of me when I was a kid. I relied on many adults, and I’m grateful I met so many adults in my life. I became who I am right now because of them,” said Hsa, who came to Minnesota at age 19.
“Just like the old adage said, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Please look out for children in your community, at schools, church, and neighbors. Josh’s stories and the Power of One have reminded me and set a great example of how caring adults can have positive impact to our children growth and success.”
Arriving in Marshall in 2011 after a few months in St. Paul, Hsa found “a loving community.” He worked while earning his GED, got married and then started his job at Marshall Public Schools in 2016.
“I love what I’m doing right now. It is rewarding. It is my passion to work in public setting, NGOs and nonprofit organizations. I feel like I have an impact on a lot of young children and families who are underrepresented. I try to be there for them, try to advocate for them,” Hsa said. “In Marshall and southwest Minnesota, we are rich in resources. But there’s a barrier if you don’t speak the language. For me, I see there’s a lot of good programs not only for kids but also for families, those in poverty, immigrants, refugees. But sometimes there’s a barrier – language, transportation, cultural difference. People don’t know how to use the services or the program because there’s nobody there to advocate for them.”
As he supports kids and families returning to school this fall, Hsa is pursuing his own learning, taking online classes for a degree in community psychology and health promotions, with a minor in political science.
Access Josh Shipp’s One Caring Adult Curriculum for free
You can make a difference in the life of a kid by being one caring adult, and we want to help. Southwest Initiative Foundation has secured access to Josh Shipp’s Social-Emotional Learning Curriculum, including a video library, discussion questions, and more. It’s a great tool for parents, grandparents, educators, faith leaders – for any caring adult who wants to prepare kids with the behaviors, skills and confidence they need to be successful! It’s available to you for FREE through the end of 2021.