Susan Jones, a retired teacher, could’ve been home as well, as could have Mary English and dozens of other volunteers. But instead of an evening in front of the TV, they were giving their time to help the Clarke County HIPPY (Home Instruction for Parents of Pre-School Youngsters) program conduct a health fair.
Before the event ended, 51 preschoolers received vision, hearing and dental screenings, as well as having their body mass index, blood sugar and blood pressure checked. The screenings showed that four youngsters needed immediate attention for vision issues while two had hearing concerns.
In addition to the health screenings, children were fingerprinted by the Clarke County Sheriff’s Department while parents got info from the county health office about child safety seats and about diabetes from Health Resources of West Alabama. A local pharmacy provided free prescriptions for chewable multivitamins.
Prior to the event, retired teachers who are HIPPY volunteers gave the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test to preschoolers enrolled in the program. The child is asked to point to a picture on a page of the item the tester names. Reponses indicate a child’s ability to understand the spoken word and follow oral directions. That night, the volunteers reviewed the results with parents.
And naturally, there was also food and fun in full measure. Hot dogs, ham and turkey sandwiches, chips and cupcakes stuffed little stomachs. Mascots from local high schools delighted the kids with their antics and cheerleaders from a middle school placed stick-on “tattoos” on plump cheeks.
Neighbors helping neighbors has been a way of life in Clarke County for generations. As David Mathews points out in his book, Why Public Schools? Whose Public Schools?, the Grove Hill Sewing Circle raised money for a new addition for Macon Male and Female Academy in the 1850s.
But such activities were certainly not unique to Clarke County. In fact, the fabric of rural America was woven by groups of neighbors joining forces with one another to build barns, gather crops, butcher hogs and clear ground.
One could justifiably make the claim that for rural places like southwest Alabama’s Clarke County, what was done to assist HIPPY is simply part of the community DNA. Given the scarcity of resources, this spirit of volunteerism is essential for successful community building.
Without doubt, HIPPY is a worthwhile project. Parent-educators make weekly visits to the homes of preschoolers where they go through a lesson with a parent, who, in turn, will spend the next week working on it with their child. There is no expense to the enrolled family. The curriculum runs for 30 weeks.
Clarke County has 94 children enrolled this year. This is the program’s sixth year in the county. In all, some 400 children have been helped.
HIPPY is especially well-suited to rural areas where distance and lack of transportation are often roadblocks to youngsters being able to participate in other pre-school programs. It is also meaningful because of the impact it makes on parents — most of who are mothers.
“One of the most heart-warming aspects of HIPPY is watching mothers take a more active role in their child’s life,” says Jane Sellers, who runs the Clarke County program. “You see them become more self-confident. While our first goal is better preparing the child for school, close behind this is helping mothers to be more independent and more comfortable in working with their kids,” says Sellers, a retired educator.
Edith Lynum, who works at the hospital in Grove Hill, attended the health fair with two of her children. She is definitely a believer in HIPPY. “I just wish my two oldest children had been able to go through the program,” she says.
Does HIPPY work? Results of the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test indicate it does. In the most recent round of pre-HIPPY and post-HIPPY tests for Clarke County, the number of children likely to succeed in school jumped 10 percent.
Kathy Spidle sees the impact at her school. “By the second day of kindergarten our teachers can tell which kids are HIPPY kids,” she says.
Because of these results, she’s glad to give up a Tuesday evening every now and then.
Larry Lee led the study, "Lessons Learned from Rural Schools," and is a long-time advocate for public education and frequently writes about education issues. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.