Sandra Cuellar is an amazing mom who’s given everything she has to support her kids. But sometimes, everything she has hasn’t been enough.
When Sandra first moved to Willmar, she didn’t really know anyone, and money was tight. She focused on supporting her kids as they navigated new schools, new friends and peer pressure.
“The biggest challenge was wanting to join a program but my mom wasn’t able to afford it,” said Yasmi Dillard, Sandra’s daughter.
Heidi Burton helped them find a way. She’s a Child Guide at Roosevelt Elementary School in Willmar.
“Heidi would always say, ‘If the girls need anything, send them to me,’” Sandra remembers.
“Anything” included school supplies, day camps, mentorships, theater camp, Girl Scouts, skating lessons and more for Sandra’s six kids.
“Every time I’d pass by Heidi’s room, I’d stop to talk to her,” said Estrella Cuellar, the youngest of Sandra’s girls.
Willmar was the first southwest Minnesota community to pilot the Child Guide Program in 1996 with the help of Southwest Initiative Foundation (SWIF). Child Guide is based on research done by Search Institute identifying 40 developmental assets children need to grow into capable, caring and resilient adults. Studies show the fewer assets a child has, the more likely the child will be involved in unhealthy, risky behaviors.
In its first two years, Willmar’s Child Guide program yielded extraordinary results, and several other southwest Minnesota communities added Child Guides. While they are housed in schools, Child Guides are completely funded by grants and donations. SWIF and its partner funds, including local community foundation partners, have granted Child Guide programs more than $990,000 over the last 20 years.
“Part of what kids need to be successful in life is for their parents to be supported,” said Nancy Fasching, SWIF’s Community Impact Director. “Child Guide is a great way to link families to resources for their immediate needs.”
Through the work of Grow Our Own, a cradle-to-career approach to closing the opportunity gap facing kids living in poverty, the foundation is also focusing on long-term strategies that give kids and families in the region a stable foundation to build on for the future.
In the Willmar School District, each elementary school has a Child Guide who links kids and volunteers, kids and activities and kids and resources, ensuring all children have what they need for healthy growth. Heidi has been doing this work for 18 years. Last year, the Willmar Child Guides worked with nearly 500 students. Since 1996, the Child Guide program has connected kids to thousands of activities and resources that answer their academic, social, and basic needs.
“We can work with any student in the school. It just happens naturally that a lot of our students are dealing with financial issues or cultural issues. We just have a lot of really neat kids and an awesome diversity at our school,” Heidi said.
In Sandra’s family, Heidi has guided each of the kids, some of whom are now adults. Sandra covered a wall in her home with photos of the kids and their achievements and keeps adding to it. Yasmi, who falls in the middle of the siblings, is a high schooler and is taking college classes for phlebotomy and certified nursing assistant (CNA) through Ridgewater College in Willmar.
“I just really enjoy helping people and always wanted to do that,” Yasmi said. “It’s important to support Child Guide so more families can be involved.”
Israel, the youngest, transferred to Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar and has Child Guide Leah Thorpe to turn to now. She linked him to a youth soccer team last year, and it’s hard to tear him away from kicking the ball in the backyard. Israel says it’s important to support the Child Guide program “to help kids with their problems.”
“We love kids, and we’re here working on their behalf. It’s a great job,” Heidi said. “Every community should have child guides. We are really blessed to have this program here and we just keep working to make sure it’s still here.”