Donor Stories

Transforming Tragedy into Teaching With Kindergarten Fund

February 19, 2024

By La Crosse Community Foundation

Kindergarten fund will help educate young minds in perpetuity

As a kindergarten teacher in the La Crosse School District, Sue Blanchar says she never went to work. She went to school. In fact, she went to school for 34 years, serving as the very first teacher hundreds of area children ever had. It’s a responsibility and privilege she delighted in, often being the first to introduce children to new concepts, books, and experiences.

One of Sue’s favorite ways to teach was to take her students on field trips, saying it opened them to a new realm of learning. Children’s minds are highly receptive to new ideas and stimuli at that age, and field trips allow them to encounter new people and environments that connect what they learned in school with the world around them.

“When thinking about my end of days, I wanted memorials to go to a kindergarten field trip fund,” says Sue. It was an idea her husband, John Blanchar, a former teaching assistant in the cognitive disabilities program, embraced. However, neither of them ever imagined the fund would be established much sooner and in a very different way.

A tragedy turns into a legacy

It was the summer of 2001. Life was good. Sue and John had three children: Steven, 20; Julianna, 18; and Trina, 12. Steven was a University of Wisconsin – La Crosse student heading toward becoming an educator like his parents. Julianna had just graduated from Central High School and looked forward to attending UW – Stout that fall. Both had helped chaperone field trips with Sue and volunteered in her classroom.

While Steven and Julianna, like many teen siblings, had little to do with each other in middle and high school, they had become friends in recent years and had gone out together with some other young people one evening.

The fun ended when the car they were traveling in hit a guardrail and struck a rock wall along a winding, hilly stretch of Hwy. K in Vernon County. Four of the five young people in the car, including Julianna and Steven, were killed.

“It was a rude awakening to how short life is,” said Sue. “They were two of the cutest kids in the world. Now, they’ll never be old.”

Honoring memories through educational support

When memorials began pouring in, John and Sue knew exactly what to do with them. They created the Julianna and Steven Blanchar Kindergarten Field Trip Fund, a designated fund at the La Crosse Community Foundation that disburses funds annually to every elementary school in La Crosse School District.

“It’s so important to give children experiences outside the classroom. It helps with language development, social development. Even riding a bus is a learning opportunity. Now teachers can do those kinds of things without having to ask parents to pay for it,” says Sue.

“We’re just happy that something good could come out of this,” adds John.

The kindergarten fund in action

At Spence Elementary, kindergarten teachers have used the funds to visit a pumpkin patch every year, giving children a new experience, connecting them to the community, and expanding learning within the science curriculum.

It’s an opportunity that many of the students would not have otherwise.

“With the rising costs of everything, these trips would be a challenge for many of our families without the help from the Blanchar funds,” said Julie Wilson, one of the teachers. “We are very grateful for the Julianna and Steven Blanchar fund that makes these opportunities available to our students.”

At other schools, funds have been used to explore apple orchards, attend plays at Viterbo University, visit the Children’s Museum of La Crosse and much more.

Through their enduring love for their children and their dedication to providing educational opportunities for others, the Blanchars turned their personal loss into a source of hope, inspiration and growth for the kindergarten children of the La Crosse School District. Their selfless actions serve as a poignant reminder that even in the darkest of times, it is possible to create a lasting and positive impact on the world.