At McLean Child Center, 3 Steady Sets of Hands

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 23, 2009

They were drawn to the child-care center in McLean for the most routine reasons: Mary Jackson wanted to volunteer close to home. Gloria Turner, recently widowed, needed to get back to work. Velma Williams had worked as an early-education teacher for years and was looking for a new gig.

Decades later, their presence at the Falls Church-McLean Children's Center is anything but ordinary: Turner has worked there nearly 37 years, starting just as Richard Nixon was gearing up for reelection. Jackson has worked there for 35 years. Williams, the baby of the bunch, since 1985.

In a region often characterized by its transience, especially among teachers and those who work with the very young, Turner, Jackson and Williams have represented reliability and consistency at the school for nearly a century's worth of combined service. They've been through the center being flooded and vandalized, new executive directors and co-workers and generations of kids.

Although each has her own style of teaching the hundreds of 2- to 5-year-olds who have passed through the center's doors during their time, their basic approach has been the same.

"The children are my passion," said Williams, 60, of Springfield and originally from Alabama. "I love the diversity of this place and that we're such a small community. You get to know every child and every parent."

Turner, 63, and Jackson, 76, began when the center, which opened in 1968, was in the basement of a nearby church that was then Chesterbrook Presbyterian, said Elizabeth Page, the center's executive director. The center had half of its current enrollment then and only a few rooms in which to teach the children.

The reason parents relied on the center's services then remains the same: It was established to address the reported problem of children being left at home while parents went to work because they couldn't afford child care.

Sixty percent of the center's children come from working families that receive financial assistance; more than half have incomes of less than $25,000 a year. Many of the children enter the program speaking little or no English.

"I think it's amazing that they still run up and down the hallway each day," Page said of the veteran educators. "We have plenty of teachers with bachelor's degrees and master's degrees who come to each of them looking for advice."

Each of the teachers said that new times have created new issues, to which they've had to adjust. Each has gone back to school to take classes and earn certificates in early childhood education.

"They're still interested in learning new things, going to workshops and learning more," Page said.

It's needed daily: Many more of the kids the teachers see now are developmentally delayed and in need of special education than were children they tended to 30 years ago. Of the 70 children in the center, 20 are in special education.

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