FDL Head Start honors Benkoski

"Thank you for allowing me to do something I love.... I love you all." Those were the closing words of Fond du Lac Head Start organizer Marilee Benkoski in appreciation to those who paid tribute to her at the FDL Head Start gymnasium last Friday....

"Thank you for allowing me to do something I love.... I love you all."

Those were the closing words of Fond du Lac Head Start organizer Marilee Benkoski in appreciation to those who paid tribute to her at the FDL Head Start gymnasium last Friday.

And yet, the pleasure was all theirs.

Benkoski, of Esko, was instrumental in starting up the first program for Fond du Lac preschoolers more than a decade ago - a precursor to today's highly successful Head Start program.

Benkoski earned a degree in elementary education from the University of Minnesota-Duluth and studied early childhood education and administrative techniques at Bemidji State Teachers College.


"Marilee is a very special lady who played a key part in the lives of our children," stated current Fond du Lac Head Start Director Mary Lou Johnson.

Today, the program has expanded to serve some 144 children as well as 40 center-based and 20 home-based Early Head Start youngsters.

"My children went there when Marilee was the director," continued Johnson in her remarks. "She made a giant step for us here on the reservation, and for that, I thank her very much."

Also paying tribute to Benkoski was Mary Ann Blacketter, a former Head Start parent who went on to become a teacher herself.

"You made a difference in my life," she told Benkoski. "If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't be here doing what I've done. You made such an impact on both kids and adults."

Blacketter went on to relate how Benkoski used to pick the children up at their homes, teach them, feed them and then bring them back home again.

"She wouldn't take no for an answer," she recalled. "Marilee believed children needed both social skills and education - and she saw they got both."

Blacketter went on to relate how all four of her children went through the Fond du Lac Head Start program, including her youngest son.


"Marilee even had him believing he could fly," Blacketter said with a fond grin. "She took those kids out to the Ditchbanks and said to them, 'Now hold your breath - and we can fly!' They believed it simply because she told them so. And one day, my daughter went to school in some sort of wraggle, taggle outfit she'd picked out herself, but Marilee had her believing how beautiful she was. Marilee is beautiful to everyone she's touched...."

Good friend and fellow teacher Wanda Abramowski shared fond memories of how Benkoski first started out working with reservation children in a little house on the reservation compound in the 1970s, along with Evelyn Lee.

"They pooled their money to buy paint for children to paint with and asked Potlatch to donate the paper," Abramowski recalled. "Marilee used to hit the garage sales to get all the things she needed to help the children learn."

At that time, Benkoski worked for the meager sum of $516 a month - and refused to give herself a raise.

The program was later moved to the Commodities Building on the reservation, and Benkoski "scrounged" castoff furniture for it from the county and the school district - enough to set up six teaching stations.

"One day we were going to have the children do some painting," said Abramowski, "and Marilee said, 'We need some old shirts. Twenty-five of them would be good...' She didn't hold back a bit. And who among us will ever forget her 'Magic Bananas?' Somehow, she managed to slice an entire banana, put it back in the peel for some child to take home with him or her - and make it look like it had never been opened! Marilee made do with practically nothing to run the program, and she brought in Foster Grandparents to help out as part of a three-generation sharing program. Because we had no janitor, she contacted the jail, and we soon had restitution workers as janitors!" she laughed.

When the new Head Start facility was finally built, Abramowski recalled that Dan Lund was one of the first bus drivers hired to transport the children.

"One day, the phone rang and it was Danny, saying one of the kids on his bus had managed to open the emergency door and rolled down the road," she related. "When we asked him what happened, he said, 'The boy got up and came over to me and begged, 'Please don't tell my mom!'"


Abramowski grew serious as she paid a personal tribute Benkoski.

"It's time everyone realized just how much Marilee sacrificed and the price she paid to give our kids what they needed," she related.

Fond du Lac Human Resources Director Chuck Smith presented Benkoski with a plaque of appreciation for her dedicated years of service to the Head Start program, recalling how she started out with practically no budget and sold pies and held bake sales to help cover expenses.

"I suspect she even contributed some of the funds out of her own pocket, just to get the program going," said Smith.

Today, Smith added, the Fond du Lac Head Start Program operates on a federal grant of over $1 million - a far cry from the bare bones program Benkoski started those many years ago, simply because she knew and believed in what was good for kids.

Pine Journal Publisher/ reporter Wendy Johnson can be contacted at: .

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