A House Of Learning And Play


Enrolling in their Children’s Future

When first walking into the Campbell’s living room, I notice something is missing. That oversized, electrified black rectangle that usually sits center stage in most single family homes doesn’t appear anywhere in sight. It is clear from the outset, this is a house of learning and play.  Nestled between Lake Independence and Lake Ardmore lives Sean, Jennifer, Hue (6), Harold (4), Helen (3) and Chester Campbell (6 months).

“When I first called in to the Orono public school district to open enroll our child, I was told he was number 7 on the waiting list. Next time I checked, he had moved to number 17, which was quite distressing.” Sean is referring to his eldest son, Hue, as he tried to open enroll him to Orono while living in Hollywood Township. They were in the midst of cleaning up their home after a tornado came through in July 2015. “We were working with the insurance company, multiple contractors and dealing with huge damage, like the loss of 100 trees.” If they were truly going to mitigate the issue of moving backwards on the school district’s waiting list, it seemed time to move into that school district. However, they were a bit concerned that despite being two working professionals – Sean runs his own group home business and Jennifer is a mechanical engineer  for a large company – Medina still isn’t the easiest city to afford a home in. Thankfully, he was already attending Orono School District’s Early Childhood and Family Education (ECFE) program and among other people, met Karen Pennaz, an ECFE instructor who actually found them their current home at just the right time.

Orono Schools Early Learning

Sean then begins singing the praises of the Orono Schools Early Learning (ECFE) program describing that not only are his children benefiting greatly, but as a parent, he has learned a lot as well. I can certainly relate having attended a few classes at the Orono ECFE program with my daughter. It was actually Karen Pennaz who introduced me to the Campbell family for this story.

“Every time I go to a school event at the Orono Discovery Center, I can see a parent that I know that is now my ‘best friend forever’. I’ve made about 40 instant friends in the last year – these people have been in my life with my babies and I with theirs. We talk about the hardest things in our lives; the joys and concerns of, ‘Oh no! Last night I yelled at my kid and why am I doing that?’”  ‘Joys and concerns’ is a portion of an ECFE class where parents discuss with other parents and the instructor(s), the various joys and concerns they’ve had recently with their children. Sean tells me that today for the first time in ECFE when parents separated from the children, Helen didn’t cry.  He then continues regarding Hue. “They say you cry when you drop your kindergartner off the first day, but when I walked down the driveway and that yellow school bus pulled up, it was just magical.”

Since joining ECFE they have taken some pledges there, such as no screens. They don’t watch TV anymore, hence the lack of a TV in their house and make weekly library runs. Their kids will be taking naps until kindergarten, at which point travel to the Apostle Islands is a tradition before school begins. “We used to spend a lot of our time with friends watching football on Sundays, but now we try to do more stuff outside. We play outside every day. Rain or shine. Sun or snow.”  Sean describes himself as a “Big Gear Wester” (referring to Gear West in Long Lake) and loves to cross-country ski. He excitedly shows me how he can ski right out his backdoor down the path to Lake Ardmore and into Baker Park.

Like Mother Like Son

Sean has a group home business he started his senior year at the University of Minnesota. This is also where he met his wife, Jennifer. They were both on the honors floor their freshman year and have been married over 9 years. Sean’s home care business takes in people with developmental disabilities. The niche he works with is considered one of the toughest groups to serve given most have already been through multiple group homes, crisis wards and/or stayed in hospital lockup. He’s been doing it for 15 years, initially inspired by his mother.

Sean grew up two doors down from Hubert Humphrey. He tells me, “Humphrey had made the bold choice at the time to not institutionalize their child with down syndrome.” Instead they hired Sean’s mother for some of the job and with that, she became a special education teacher for the next 30 years. Sean describes himself as growing up in a classroom and his mother as being a, “wizard with people with disabilities.” His family always made education central, which is why before moving to Medina, Sean researched about 30 schools. Initially, he thought they’d go the Catholic school route since both he and Jennifer volunteer at the Basilica of Saint Mary. Yet during his research, his mom strongly advocated on behalf of public school. She was highly community-minded, strongly believing in the notion that, “all kids should get a good, fair public education.” Sean said it was the early childhood programs that especially drew them to Orono public schools. One thing he’s learned is, “the secrets to parenting are sometimes counterintuitive and not doing things the way you think you should.”

Au Pair for Day Care

As for daycare, the Campbells have a live-in au pair. Sean jokes, “I say the number one benefit of an au pair is you don’t have to bundle up your kids in winter gear 5 times a week and get them in the car.” Similar to an exchange program, the au pair watches their kids 45 hours per week, while also attending school for 6 credits per semester.  Their current au pair, Daniella from Columbia, is required a minimum one year stay with the option of adding a second year. This is their third au pair. “It’s a lifestyle choice. You have to support someone from another country. Now that we have 4 kids, the au pair program is more affordable than any daycare service we could have.” Jen adds, “It’s a flat rate no matter how many kids you have.” Despite having a live-in au pair, Sean makes it a point to take one day off of work per week that he devotes solely to his children. He calls it Papa Fridays this year. Last year it was Papa Tuesdays.  

Given the Campbell’s high regard for education and family values, it seems they’ve landed in the right home. The community of Medina is lucky to have gained such a wonderful family.