Q&A with Debbie Stephens

March 6, 2013 

City of Residence: Bonaire

Occupation: Executive director, Cherished Children Education Center

QUESTION: What is Cherished Children?

ANSWER: Basically, it’s a nonprofit child development center geared toward providing affordable, quality education to low-income families. It was begun in 1965 and originally called the Warner Robins Day Care Center.

QUESTION: What age children do you serve?

ANSWER: Six weeks to 11 years old. Those six weeks to 5 are in our full-day day care and older children in our before-school and after-school program.

QUESTION: How many students are at Cherished Children now?

ANSWER: We have 79 all day and 25 before and after school, so 104.

QUESTION: What’s your capacity?

ANSWER: The state puts it at 129, but to assure high quality care and education our board decided to keep capacity around 100. That allows a lower child to teacher ratio we think is important.

QUESTION: So it’s a nonprofit school but families have to pay. How does that work?

ANSWER: We’re funded through financial donations as well as given gifts of items like toys and books from individuals, churches, organizations and businesses -- plus we have an annual golf tournament. We’re a longtime United Way agency, but we also charge based on a sliding, income-based scale. To qualify here, parents do have to be working or attending school.

QUESTION: What’s the center’s general operating budget?

ANSWER: Right at $477,000 a year.

QUESTION: Are there similar nonprofit pre-schools in Warner Robins?

ANSWER: Not quite like us. There are churches and others that may be nonprofit, but I think our role is a little different. We even get support from some churches that operate day cares.

QUESTION: Cherished Children does have a unique origin.

ANSWER: It started with Mrs. Jean Coleman, who passed away just three years ago. We still call her our angel, and the kids always learn who she is. It was a sad day when she left us. Mrs. Jean was a Realtor and started Golden Key Realty. One day her maid brought her kids to her house and said it was because there was no child care. Back in the ‘60s there just wasn’t child care for African-Americans. Mrs. Jean thought that was a shame and took it on herself to help provide it along with a group of women called Church Women United. I think she started something that was a lot more than she or anyone ever imagined.

QUESTION: So it was a group effort, but she really spearheaded it -- one person made the difference?

ANSWER: She just got out there and started knocking on doors 24/7. She talked to anyone who would listen -- officials, business people, people she sold houses to, anyone. The city provided the original facility rent-free through the housing authority, and Ada Lee was the first director. Even while Mrs. Jean was in a nursing home we’d take kids to see her, and she’d brighten up and the kids would just run up and hug her.

QUESTION: When did the center move to Myrtle Street?

ANSWER: In 2006. Gary Martin, our board chairman, and the rest of the board is working now to open an additional facility behind Shady Grove Church on U.S. 41 near Centerville. Depending on state approvals, we hope to have it open in April. It’s Shady Grove’s former day care that they aren’t using but don’t want to go to waste.

QUESTION: How has Cherished Children changed through the years?

ANSWER: The main change is that it was started for African-American kids, but now it’s for all. Still, 75 percent of children are from families at or below the poverty level, and our goal is to make it easier for them to have quality day care at that income level.

QUESTION: What’s your background?

ANSWER: First, I’m a graduate of Cherished Children myself. I graduated from Northside High School in 1985 and then got a business degree at Fort Valley State University. I married into the military and ended up in Japan where there were no jobs except on base, and all they had there was in childhood development. So a little frightened, I took a job working with children.

QUESTION: Apparently it went well.

ANSWER: After I relaxed a bit. At first I was teaching and just thinking, “Oh God, they won’t stop crying!” But finally someone told me, “Honey, you’re working too hard. Put a hat on, sit on the floor and have fun with them.”

That opened my eyes to how big teaching really is and how it happens. Of course, we have a formal curriculum, but it’s amazing how much learning takes place just in conversation and when kids are interested and having fun with a teacher. The best advice I give teachers is to pretend you’re doing something, like cooking, and just watch them light up and want to do the same thing. It opens the door to sneak in a lot of teaching and social learning.

Compiled by Michael W. Pannell. Contact him at mwpannell@gmail.com.

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