With the coronavirus pandemic shutting down so much of the campus, Carolyn Mulder of the AS Child Development Center – the campus preschool for the children of student parents, employees, and alumni nestled in a grove of firs and cedars near Fairhaven College – has had to seek out new opportunities to engage the bright, growing minds of the 4- and 5-year-olds in her care.
“So many of the incredible opportunities the campus usually affords of us aren’t available right now, like the pool and the gyms at the Wade King Student Recreation Center,” she said. “So we needed to seek out some new areas to catch the children’s interest and keep them engaged, and the construction site for the new Interdisciplinary Science Building was perfect.”
Since June, Mulder and her tiny charges have ventured out to the site each day, rain or shine, to watch and record all the many things that are so fascinating to them – digging, hammering, building – but one item employed by BNBuilders, the general contractors on the project, caught the class’ attention more than any other: the huge yellow crane that towered over the site.
“The children were fascinated with it from Day 1, and before long they had named the crane ‘Sunflower,’” said Mulder. “One day last summer, we were sitting in the shade near the site, and everybody was drawing what they were observing. We were talking about how the crane operator was way, way up at the top, in the little booth. We were all looking up … and saw that the operator was looking down and waving to them! They were so excited. So they all waved back … and that started something really unique and special.”
Gifts of Gratitude and Kindness
As the students spent more and more time near the site each day, the class began to develop relationships not only with Peter Bridgman, Sunflower’s operator, but with BNB jobsite liaison Anna MacKinnon and other members of the construction crew.
“These workers are just so kind,” said Mulder. “And at this point, Peter is literally a superhero in the eyes of these children.”
MacKinnon said this kind of relationship is something BNB tries to foster on their job sites.
“Community outreach is actually one of BNB’s core initiatives, and when we start a project, we always engage the local community. It is such an honor to be involved and get to help facilitate these activities,” she said.
“I just remember how cool it felt to have dump truck drivers and heavy equipment operators wave at me or honk their horns when I was a kid,” he said.
As the relationships began to grow between the schoolchildren, teachers, and the workers on the site, the kids began sending questions to Bridgman, along with pictures of Sunflower and the construction and some small gifts they had made in the classroom.
“Of course, the children wanted to know all the basics, like ‘was it scary climbing all those ladders to the top every day,’ and ‘do you have a bathroom up there’ … the same sort of questions we would have,” Mulder said.
After hearing About the crane’s new name, Bridgman decorated it with silk sunflowers, which delighted the class. Then around Halloween, Sunflower had a special gift – and as the class waited in a nearby staging area, the crane lowered down a jack ‘o’ lantern filled with treats.
“Needless to say, they were absolutely ecstatic,” Mulder said.
Afterwards, the class retreated to the warm, dry classroom and began writing thank-you notes and composing more drawings – reciprocal acts of kindness and gratitude for Bridgman, MacKinnon and the BNBuilders crew.
“They have learned so much watching this work being done, from understanding physics to how tools work and how big jobs take little steps each day to get done … but the most important thing they have learned is the value of kindness and community,” she said.
Of course, the children wanted to know all the basics, like ‘was it scary climbing all those ladders to the top every day,’ and ‘do you have a bathroom up there’ … the same sort of questions we would have.
Max Bronsema, director of Web Communication Technologies at Western, said his son Kellen, who is one of Mulder’s students, has been bringing home tales of Sunflower’s exploits throughout the fall.
"Visits to Sunflower are a without a doubt a highlight of the day. It is magical to see the connections between what is being built, Sunflower's role, and the mixed-media art my son creates based on what is happening on the site," he said.
Then last weekend came another offering from Sunflower; even though it was pouring rain, the hardy youngsters, in true Pacific Northwest fashion, headed to the site in full Gore-Tex, cloth face coverings, knitted wool hats, and rubber dinosaur boots to see what the latest gift from the World’s Friendliest Crane could possibly be. They stared, transfixed, as a huge red and white Santa stocking, bursting with more treats, descended to them on the ground.
“They were so happy and so excited. It was the kind of holiday gift I think we all needed,” Mulder said.
And since the Interdisciplinary Science Building isn’t scheduled to be completed until January 2022, Mulder and her class have another year or so of memories and interactions with Sunflower to look forward to -- all because of the kindness of one person in a small glass booth, 200 feet in the sky.
To find out more about the CDC and its work, go to https://as.wwu.edu/cdc/.