Peggy Decker worked as a pediatrician in Red Wing for 22 years. After an early retirement from the Mayo Clinic in 2016, she learned about SMIF’s AmeriCorps LEAP (Learning Early Achieves Potential) Initiative. She felt like this was exactly what she wanted to do next – combining service, early intervention and addressing inequalities in academic achievement through a new lens of social emotional learning. “AmeriCorps has provided a structured way for me to explore something new and different,” she said. “For anyone who is thinking about a career change or ending a very demanding career, AmeriCorps is a great bridge.”
AmeriCorps LEAP Initiative members serve in preschool classrooms and nonprofit organizations focused on the social and emotional development of young children in SMIF’s 20-county region. Members work one-on-one and in small groups with young children, ages 3-5, building social and emotional proficiencies to prepare for kindergarten success.
As a pediatrician Decker saw many behavior and mental health problems. “The focus of primary care pediatrics is to help parents and children not only survive, but thrive no matter what comes at them,” she said. “Pediatrics gave me the chance to follow many children from birth through high school and some onto parenthood themselves. I saw the developmental arc over a long time and how potential can be nurtured into something wonderful and lasting, but also how adversity can throw families off track.” Decker knows that providing another positive relationship with a trusted adult can provide a lifelong buffer against adversity.
Decker works in the mornings doing half time AmeriCorps service in the Cannon Falls Preschool. Her pediatric skills are still very much at work in this new role. “I listen carefully, I observe closely, and I try to make important things look like play,” she said. “I teach children how their brains and bodies work when they have strong feelings and what they can do with them.” One of the activities she enjoys doing with the kids is taking turns with a “kindness” ball which lights up with movement. They roll or bounce it back and forth saying affirmations about themselves or a friend, teaching perspective and understanding another’s viewpoint and feelings which might be different from your own.
LEAP members also promote routine reading to develop learning readiness which is critical for overall school success. ABDO Publishing, a southern Minnesota publishing company, donates books for members to use in the classroom. “This is another fun aspect to our program where we can encourage both early literacy skills and foster social emotional connections by reading together,” said Decker. “Even in the simplest easy reader book about things that are yellow, my amazing fellow LEAP skill builders can find a social emotional lesson to bring to life in the preschool classroom.”
Decker has found a strong support network working with and learning from the other LEAP members in the region through SMIF’s program. “From our first workshop and retreat, we have been given opportunities to learn, to laugh, to share struggles and successes, and to grow,” she said. “Since I am the first ‘social emotional skill builder’ from the LEAP program in Cannon Falls Preschool, I depend heavily on SMIF for guidance on my goals and steps to be successful in meeting the goals. The foundation also has definitely made me feel like an important part of their mission to strengthen southern Minnesota communities.”
For Decker, her AmeriCorps experience has been a natural next step for her life, and she is enjoying the opportunity to serve in this new capacity. “It’s hard to have a bad day when a four-year-old gives you a hug.”
We are now recruiting for the 2019 – 2020 service term. Apply today!