Cooper Early Education Center will see some major changes next school year — and not just from the introduction of all-day classes.

Longtime Infant Toddler Program teacher Marcia Friesen is retiring at the end of the current school year (Aug. 1 officially, as it is a 12-month program), handing over the reins to a position she has filled at Cooper for 27 years.

Friesen got her start in education in the Newton school district as a paraeducator at South Breeze Elementary and, while she served as a classroom teacher at Rainbows United for a short time, has spent nearly her entire career in USD 373. She earned her bachelor's degree in early childhood special education from Bethel College when the program was first introduced, and shortly afterward took the position with the Infant Toddler Program at Cooper — wanting to continue working for a district at the forefront of early childhood special education.

"This community, this county, has been a trendsetter. They've (USD 373) had services since 1980. I would say most of the 3 to 5 services probably started mid to later '80s," Friesen said," and then 0 to 3 services, most of them didn't start until like about 1993."

Infant Toddler Program services at Cooper provide child development support and resources to families and caregivers. The program encourages families to improve their children’s learning and development through everyday opportunities. The services in the Infant Toddler program are offered to children ages birth to 3 with developmental delays or disabilities at no cost.

While Friesen noted there is typically one main provider leading the early intervention services offered by the Infant Toddler Program, there is a whole team ready to provide the developmental support (including a speech pathologist, physical therapist, etc.) that students and their families may need.

Part of that support is creating a family service plan to give parents the tools to help in their child's development. Once children reach the age of 3, options beyond the Infant Toddler Program (like attending the Cooper Early Education Center) are also discussed.

At Cooper, students from all different backgrounds are blended together to have a mix of learning opportunities — similar to the mix of opportunities that led Friesen to find her way into early childhood special education.

"My original intent — my dream that I'd had since I was in third grade — was to be a teacher of the hearing impaired because I'd had time as a little assistant from third grade to sixth grade in an elementary class with kiddos this age who all had hearing impairment, and so three of us had learned sign language and been little teacher helpers and that's what I was going to do," Friesen said.

"I've always loved kids, always loved to be in with people. I had a sister who had some developmental disabilities and those pieces. Jackie was part of our family — she was a foster kid, so she came to us with some challenges as well," Friesen said. "I think that helps me be able to sit and listen and then walk alongside of somebody, walk along with them in that journey to figure out what are the next steps, what are the things they need. I'm very much a nurturer/caretaker by nature."

Friesen said she is energized by interactions with families and helping in the development of their young children, something she has seemingly been preparing herself for from a young age. She enjoys equipping them with the developmental skills to move forward in life.

Now, while she is entering retirement and stepping away from education, she said she intends to continue her mission of helping young children — just in a different way. Friesen's retirement plans include a lot of volunteer work with organizations she has partnered with in her time at Cooper, such as the Harvey County United Way, CASA and local child care centers. That will likely also include coming back to help Cooper Early Education Center as well.

Seeing the growth of both the program and the individual students has been something that has given Friesen a lot of fulfillment, and while she will miss forging the relationships at the center of her work, she hopes she continues to see the evidence of the good it is doing in the community.

"Numerous families, I've got to watch them from when the babies were born; some of them I'm involved with at this point and there's probably some that are in their mid-30s now," Friesen said. "Hopefully I've helped them see that they can do it. They're capable of doing things, they're capable of being successful, they're capable of going onto the next steps and learning new things."

"I've been fortunate to do things I love — have fun, talk with people, forge relationships," Friesen said, "and hopefully I've built to a kind of resiliency in the family to know that when there are other families struggling, they could also help walk along with them and help kind of spread the word about the services, spread the word about the hope that they can have and sharing those successes with their kids and friends and family, too."