CHAMPAIGN – The lunches at Marujita's Small World School aren't your typical preschool fare – chicken enchiladas, red beans and rice, seafood paella.
"I don't give them corn dogs or hot dogs," Crisalida Thomassie, owner and director of the English-Spanish preschool at 1305 S. Mattis Ave., C, said with a laugh.
Thomassie, a native of Peru, opened the multicultural preschool in 1999. It now has 25 children, ages 6 weeks to 6 years. Roughly 70 percent speak Spanish as their first language.
The staff is multicultural and multilingual. Besides Thomas-sie, there are teachers from Mexico, the United States, Puerto Rico and Egypt. At the moment, children are studying ancient Egypt, making a cast of a mummy and sampling Egyptian food, such as a bread known as besbusa.
They're exposed to different languages, books, cuisines – even different music in the lullabies playing softly while infants sleep.
Thomassie and her staff believe young children need to be exposed to different languages so they're ready to learn by the time formal language instruction begins in school.
"It educates their ear toward the Spanish language and other languages as well," said teacher Nilsa Almenas, a native of Puerto Rico.
Thomassie originally moved to the United States in 1981 when she married her husband, Kenneth Thomassie, an engineer. They met while working for Occidental Petroleum Co. at an oil camp in northern Peru. They dated five or six times, and then he wanted to meet her family.
"He liked my family. The next day, he proposed to me," said Thomassie, then Crisalida Maria Salazar Rivera.
But she was unsure. She had never had a long-term boyfriend and was from a picturesque but conservative mountain town; she wasn't sure how her parents would feel about her moving to the United States. She told Thomassie he would have to ask her father for her hand.
"My dad give him a big, long talk," she said, but agreed to the marriage.
The couple married in Peru and moved to the United States in 1981, living first in California and then New Orleans, her husband's hometown.
"It's a good mix – he likes spicy food, and I do, too," she said.
There were some mix-ups as she adjusted to American life. She remembers being terrified after her husband's grandmother referred to him as Butch, and the only reference she could find in the dictionary was "butcher."
"I freaked out. I called my sister in Florida and said, 'I don't know who I'm marrying,'" she said.
Then there was the fund-raiser who knocked on her door on behalf of Jerry Lewis' telethon for muscular dystrophy, mentioning something about "Jerry's kids."
"I said, 'They're not here, you might want to see next door.' He looked at me funny and left. I called my husband and said, 'Do you know Jerry?' He said, "Jerry who? Why?' I said, 'Somebody came by and asked for Jerry's kids.' He just started laughing."
The couple moved to Champaign-Urbana in 1984, when Kenneth Thomassie got a job at the Clinton nuclear power plant. They soon had three boys, and Crisalida Thomassie decided to open a home day care in 1990.
"I liked it because my kids were little. I've always liked kids," she said.
Because of her bilingual skills, one of the parents at her day care suggested Thomassie for a job with the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, as a family service coordinator helping migrant families. She did that from 1994 to 1996, working with growers who hired migrant workers and visiting families in Rantoul and other area towns.
But she missed the direct contact with children. She decided to take some early childhood courses at Parkland College so she could open her own day-care center.
At Marujita's – Thomassie's nickname when she was young – the teachers constantly switch back and forth from English to Spanish. They read books written in both languages. Almenas, fluent in four languages, likes to sing a favorite "hello" song in English, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese, even Arabic.
The children pick it up easily. She constantly hears native English speakers using "por favor" and "gracias," and even "No, es mio!" ("No, it's mine!").
"Spanish is spoken daily, continuously," Thomassie said. "We have kids who speak Spanish and kids who speak English. It's interesting to see how they communicate with each other. There is no barrier."
Parents have asked Thomassie, "How do you teach Spanish to a 17-month-old?"
Her response: "How do you teach English to a 17-month old? You don't really teach them. You expose them."
As she talks, she plays patty-cake in English and Spanish with 4-month-old Marlen, a Hispanic baby girl. She then takes 11-month-old Kaden Murphy over to talk to her. "Say hola, Kaden. Como esta?" (Hello, how are you?)
"You don't have to necessarily sit them down and teach them red, black, blue," she said. "You just say, 'Could you please bring me the red ball?' then repeat it in Spanish. The more children hear it, the more they get used to it."
In general, there are no rigid schedules at the preschool. Aside from the core areas of art, music and developmental toys, children are free to play with whatever they want, said Almenas, who has worked at child development labs at the UI and two other universities. She and Thomassie champion a hands-on approach to learning to develop social, language and cognitive skills.
"It's fun to them. It helps them make sense in their world," said Almenas, who teaches 3- and 4-year-olds.
The unit on Egypt, for example, went from one week to five because students showed so much interest. Almenas hopes to make a minimuseum in one of the school's classrooms and take the children to see the Spurlock Museum of World Cultures in Urbana.
"Structure comes later on. Children have different ways of learning," including play, Thomassie said. "I want this to be an extension of home."
The multicultural menu was born partly out of necessity. She wanted the children to get sufficient vegetables but noticed no one was eating them. So Thomassie, who loves to cook, started putting them in casseroles, "the way I grew up." She made arroz con pollo, a chicken and rice dish with cilantro and mixed veggies. Or quinoa, a grain native to the Andes in South America, served with chicken, carrots and tomato sauce.
"I wanted to open a restaurant, but my husband said no," she joked.
The children are usually a bit hesitant to try the food but learn to like it over time, she said.
Once a month, she also hosts late-afternoon dinners where parents can mingle with each other and the staff. On Mother's Day, she prepared salmon, salad and baked potatoes.
"She just spoils everybody," said Kaden's mom, Stephanie Murphy. "We just love her. She's the best."
Murphy has taken Kaden to Marujita's since he was 3 months old, after checking out at least eight other day-care centers.
"It just seemed kind of homey. Everybody seemed really close. She treated the kids like they were her own kids," said Murphy, an administrative assistant at United Model. "He loves it. He gets cranky if he doesn't go five days a week."
The multicultural aspect was also appealing. "We always joke with her that he's going to come home, and his first words are going to be in Spanish, and his dad and I will be like, 'Huh?'" she said with a laugh.
Feeding a bottle to Kaden in the brightly colored infant room, Thomassie said, "You get to love these kids. I get very attached to them. You really have to like children, and be committed to children, to be with them from 7 to 5:30 every day."
You can reach Julie Wurth at (217) 351-5226 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .