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Grant helps UW-Eau Claire assist at-risk preschoolers

| Gary Johnson

The global pandemic has placed some of society’s most vulnerable members — children from low-income households — at risk of falling behind academically even before they start kindergarten.

But a $12,000 grant to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s Early Childhood Literacy Intervention Program (ECLIPSE) will give hundreds more 3- to 5-year-olds in the Chippewa Valley access to literacy materials and instruction. The grant from the United Way’s COVID-19 Response and Recovery Community Fund will enable UW-Eau Claire’s ECLIPSE Program to potentially double the number of children served from 350 to 700.

Carmen Manning

Dr. Carmen Manning

“This Response and Recovery grant is another example of how UW-Eau Claire works in partnership with the community to educate our students while fulfilling our mission to serve our region,” says Dr. Carmen Manning, dean of UW-Eau Claire’s College of Education and Human Sciences. “As we face this pandemic together, UW-Eau Claire and the ECLIPSE Program are proud to support early literacy learning in the Chippewa Valley.”

Karen Hebert, a United Way special projects associate, says the organization supports ECLIPSE’s efforts to “adjust to pandemic realities and fulfill their mission.”

“United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley has long valued early childhood literacy as a solution to poverty,” Hebert says. “ECLIPSE has their caring eye on a challenge and solutions that matter for a lifetime — and generations."

ECLIPSE is an AmeriCorps program that focuses on childhood literacy for at-risk children in the Eau Claire and Altoona school districts. The United Way grant may allow UW-Eau Claire to serve twice as many children and potentially expand the program to Chippewa Falls.

Amy Fink, ECLIPSE Director

Amy Fink

“Enriching early literacy development has always been the mission of ECLIPSE,” says Amy Fink, ECLIPSE program manager at UW-Eau Claire, who applied for the United Way grant. “This grant allows the opportunity for us to reach out to more families in our area and support them. I know the struggles parents must be going through now.”

UW-Eau Claire students who work with the ECLIPSE program typically have in-person, one-on-one sessions with children at Head Start centers. But those centers closed in March after Gov. Tony Evers’ safer-at-home order went into effect and have not reopened. If the centers do reopen, Fink anticipates enrollment would be low because of physical distancing measures in place.

“They’re all going to have a deficit this year,” Fink says of the students. “Just from this past March, there will be gaps in their academics.”

The United Way funding will be used to help close that gap, providing literacy kits in fall and spring that contain books and other step-by-step activity guides to activities. The grant allows for the development of a virtual ECLIPSE website intended to create interactive reading sessions, learning activities and virtual field trips to sites such as the Eau Claire Fire Department and local parks 

ECLIPSE worker Zack Blackert, a junior broadfield social science major and Latin American studies minor from Eagan, Minnesota, says the virtual programming being developed is important for preschoolers to help ensure they have a solid literacy foundation, especially youngsters who may have fallen behind the developmental expectations of their age range.

Blackert says website developers are trying to make the upcoming programming as interactive as possible with items such as art project videos or simply listening to an ECLIPSE member reading aloud. The website is expected to be operational by the end of September.

“The virtual programming that we are planning on offering is one that I believe will work very well for the age ranges that we serve,” Blackert says. “We continually brainstorm how the resources that we put together will be accessible for both the children that we serve as well as their families and caregivers.”

Another work-study student in the ECLIPSE program, Alexia Dellemann, a senior social work major from Pulaski, says the programming allows students to learn the necessary literacy skills while remaining safe during COVID-19.

“Having programming virtual will be a learning curve for children and their parents but will be very effective in continuing their education through this pandemic,” Dellemann says. “With the way we are setting up programming, we will have literacy kits, videos, story time, etc. to help with their learning. This will get kids interested in learning and keep their attention. We are working on fun and creative ideas to bring new experiences to these kids while getting them to learn. It is all about making sure that what we put together is fun and easy to navigate for children, parents and teachers.”

Alivia Torrez, a junior from Holmen who is a double major in elementary education and Spanish education, believes the combination of the literacy kits and the virtual presentation should keep preschoolers interested in learning.

“ECLIPSE promotes literacy in our partner sites and makes it fun,” says Torrez, an ECLIPSE worker. “One of the most important aspects to getting kids interested in literacy is making it fun for them.”

For more information, contact Amy Fink, ECLIPSE program manager, at

Top photo caption: UW-Eau Claire student Allison Mulroy works with a child during an ECLIPSE session.