Happy Workers

12/24/08 Andrea Lypka
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Gertrude Jones has been a teacher at the Happy Workers Children’s Center in midtown St. Petersburg for 34 years. The daycare was founded by Willie Lee McAdams, the wife of Pastor Oscar McAdams in the Trinity Presbyterian Church in 1929.

The center started in the storeroom of the church on 920 19th St. S. and expanded into what it is today, she says. Even though 90 percent of the children are “poor and minority,” 90 percent of them achieve at or above grade level, according to 2008 History Comes Home brochure. The nursery and preschool for children from 2 months to 5 years is funded by United Way of Tampa Bay, several churches and organizations. It is helped by Eckerd College, the University Of South Florida School of Education and the many volunteers.

Jones starts her day at 8:30 a.m. with lessons on daily hygiene which includes brushing the children's teeth and washing their hands and faces. Then she attends the “circle,” a meeting with the teachers to discuss the daily program. This includes singing nursery rhymes, reading stories and teaching all the children and their parents about different cultures.

Each month a culture is studied through gastronomy, music and literature. Parents often participate in ethnic food samplings. Each month a peacemaker, a person who affected or affects peace and human rights, and a classical music composer is chosen, and the children learn about them for the entire month.

From 8:30 a.m. till 5:30 p.m. Jones sings songs to the children, reads many books to them, does art projects, teaches them dance and about their neighborhood surroundings. Often, she walks with her children in the neighborhood. They also go to the Peace Garden in the center and talk about the oak trees, bugs, birds and rocks. “If a child wants to learn something we help that child do that,” she says.

The curriculum borrows from an Italian early childhood education program, the Reggio Emilia, named after the city in which it was founded after the World War II. It is based on six core values: making friends, caring, giving, sharing, respecting and helping, she says.

“We encourage the children to talk to us about what they know. In the Reggio program the teacher has to do a lot of documentation [on the children’s progress]. You have to catch the children doing natural things. We are trying to get them to help us to learn. If they ask a question we don't know about, we have to research that,” Jones says.

Long-term projects, such as the study of a culture each month and learning a foreign language, and collaborative group work improve the mental development of the child, she says. There are no computers and no TVs in the building, but there are building blocks, puzzles, crayons and many books.

“We want the children to explore and be more responsive to what's going on around them instead of sitting in front of the computer and let the computer dictate to them,” she says. Teachers and volunteers teach the children to solve problems peacefully. “It's important for our children to leave this preschool as responsible [young people] who care about the world, about being peaceful, about doing things the right way and making good choices,” she says.

Before retiring Richard Davis was a human resource consultant. Now he has been volunteering here once a week for seven years because he says he wants to give back to the community. “I get more than I give back. Working with children is very rewarding,” he says.

He heard about the center from his church St. Thomas Episcopal. He has been working with Jones' class once a week for the last couple of years. “I am with 3- and 4 -year-old students, helping out in the class and in the playground. I am also working with them individually. Right now I am teaching them the different colors,” he says. The Reggio Emilia system helps the children explore opportunities in the classroom and outside, he says.

Both Gertrude Jones and Richard Davis say that there have been positive changes in Midtown.

Jeanette Lyons from Jamaica grew up in Melrose Mercy/Pine Acres neighborhood and has been a receptionist and secretary at the Happy Workers since 2007. She is also active in the Parents Association at the center. She was looking for daycare for her 6-month-old son. She found Happy Workers on the list of daycare centers provided by the Coordinate Childcare Program.

“I am not a fan of home-based centers because it is someone's home, it is personal. I’d rather be in a small business. I also knew one of the teachers of the infants. That started our relationship in 2000,” she says. “I think it is a wonderful preschool. You are not gonna find too many black owned [day care] centers. They [Happy Workers] push literacy; they push for our kids to be ready for the situations. I believe they truly care about the kids here,” she says.

“I know that in most countries we are thought of as not being able to succeed. We are just known for our negatives. But this neighborhood has so many positives to come around. How many centers do you know that can be open for 80 years?” she says. “It just happens that in the south side you are going to have predominantly African - Americans in schools. But it is changing. In the Jordan Park Apartments I have seen a lot more Caucasians. The culture is changing in this area. It's gonna be more different in another year or two. North side is turning into south side and south side is turning into north side,” she says.

Jarmane Esperance has been the Happy Workers' executive director for a year. He “was born in a pastor's home and grew up in a pastor's church” in Haiti. “It was hard for me to attend school in my country because my pastor Dad didn’t make a large salary. I do know the pain to put children to school,” he says. He says that he hopes he is a role model for the students at this center. The Happy Workers’ success is because of the “programs that other day care centers in the area don't offer.” They teach children about justice, peace and earth keeping, he says.

Currently, there are 145 children enrolled in the program, and the center is licensed for 200 students, he says. “Every time we accept one child we turn three away because of lack of space,” he says.

He says the “History Comes Home Fundraising Campaign” may raise the $2.25 million still needed to complete the construction of a new campus. The proposed 18,000 square-foot campus will have a capacity for 200 children, will have 16 classrooms and it will be a green building, according to the building plans and the “History Comes Home.”

The first phase of the building, a wing for 170 children on Eighteen Street South, will start next year. “If we finish the first phase this will probably catch somebody's attention,” he says. In the second phase of the project the Trinity United Presbyterian Church will be restored. He says that the day care center will stay open throughout the construction and will operate in the old building.

Most of the students who attend the center come through the Coordinated Childcare Services of Pinellas County. Doug Oakes, assistant executive director at the Coordinated Childcare Services of Pinellas says that they assist low income families in Pinellas County in paying for and finding childcare. Children living in a low-income family, living in foster care or children with special needs would qualify for their program. The requirements vary depending on the size of the family and income level, he says.

“The agency requires that both parents would be working or going to school at least 20 hours a week and that their income level should be at or below 150 percent of the poverty level,” he says.

According to Oakes, a single mother with a child should have a $20,535 yearly income to qualify for their program. A family of two would pay $4 and 8 cents a day, $24 a week fee to the preschool. Happy Workers Day Care Center is on the Coordinated Childcare Services of Pinellas’ (CCR&R) database of the providers. Currently there are 1,106 child care providers and early education programs in Pinellas County on the list. This means that these day care centers have to be licensed by the Pinellas County License Board for Children Centers and Family Day Care Homes. The CCR&R also have a quality assessment process for these institutions meaning that they are committed to quality education standards, he says. CCR&R does research and tests on its contracted institutions.

“The purpose is to allow the parent to work,” says Oakes.

Wengay Newton, Council member of District 7 says he knows many successful adults who graduated at Happy Workers. "It's an icon in the community; they have been here forever. I believe that if you don't start to teach people very early, you are going to lose them,” he says.

Despite the fact that the city approved Happy Workers the allocation of 4,450 square-foot of land between 18th Street South, 19th Street South, 19th Avenue South and 12th Avenue South, “funding from the city is not enough,” Newton says.

Happy Workers Soundslides

The organizations mentioned in the article:

Coordinated Child Care Telephone: (727) 547-5750 Address: 6698 68th Avenue N., Suite B Pinellas Park, FL

Happy Workers Children’s Center Email: happy.workers@verizon.net Telephone: (727) 894-5337 Address: 920 19th St. S., St. Peterburg, FL 33712

Head Start Child Development Telephone: (727) 895-2512 Address: 6698 - 68th Avenue N. Suite D, Pinellas Park, FL 33781

United Way of Tampa Bay Telephone: (813) 274-0900 Address: 5201 W. Kennedy Boulevard, Suite 600 Tampa, FL 33609

Trinity Presbyterian Church

Mental Health Treatment Study, 2007


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