Fressia Medina Greenbaum’s round-trip commute is 80 miles (129 kilometers), five days a week. She's underpaid, and her days are often long. But she’s not concerned about that, or the amount of money she makes, because the precious jewels in her care are priceless. She is an early childhood director at Ephesus Christian Child Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, United States.
“It’s all about the children,” Greenbaum said. “I love working with them. I love teaching them.”
Greenbaum serves with a special group of people. She is one of about 400 early childhood educators in the Southern Union Conference, which has 41 Seventh-day Adventist child care centers. More than 1,500 children, from birth to age 5, are enrolled at the centers. Most of them are children from other faith communities.
Carolyn Preston is director of Northeast Christian Preschool Academy in Charlotte, North Carolina. The program had to close recently because the coronavirus pandemic drastically reduced the number of students attending. However, when there was full attendance, Preston said, about 95 percent of the children were from other faith communities. She and her co-workers saw that as an opportunity for evangelism.
“We teach our children Bible Scriptures; we teach them to obey their parents and the Lord,” Preston said. “And, seeing them carry the gospel back to their parents is just amazing.”
She recalls one parent being converted. The woman became interested in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Preston said, because she was impressed with her child's knowledge of the Bible and the songs she would sing when she came home from preschool.
One day, the woman’s mother died. Preston told her pastor about the loss, and he, along with other church members, reached out to the woman and treated her with compassion.
“She said we did more for her than her own church,” Preston recalled. “She said, ‘It’s time to make a change. This should be my church family,’ and she joined our church [Northeast church].”
An Added Blessing
Karen Pires, director of Jellico Christian Academy in Jellico, Tennessee, says sharing the love of Christ with children is a great joy, but reaching their parents is an added blessing.
“It’s a mission outreach,” Pires said. “Some of [the parents] ask what do you believe about the Bible, about Sabbath, about death? Some of it the children are taking home. But, some of it is because we have spent time nurturing friendships with these people.”
Tamara Libonati is director of early childhood education for the Southern Union Conference. She says early childhood educators in the conference often do more than they are asked.
“In addition to loving the children in their care, I’ve witnessed a director sending a low-income person to their center’s kitchen to get a loaf of bread, food to take home,” Libonati said. “Directors give Bible studies to their employees from other faith communities. The list goes on. They practice what Jesus taught: love, reach out, serve, minister to.”
Even though it’s a ministry for most of them, advocates say that early childhood educators do not receive the compensation and common benefits given to their counterparts who have similar higher education degrees and work at elementary schools and universities.
“So much research exists that states how the earliest years of a child are the most formidable, that children who start in a healthy, positive, and caring educational situation will stay healthy, positive, and be successful in life, socially and spiritually,” Libonati said. “It perplexes me why early childhood education and care isn’t revered, or, at the very least, supported and treated equally in the educational system.”
Greenbaum, who is working on a doctorate in organizational leadership, is an example.
“She’s so committed,” Maxine Bowers, chair of Ephesus Christian Academy school board, said. Bowers volunteers at the center to assist Greenbaum. “She comes in early, works late. The children benefit from that kind of commitment.”
Kimberly Smith is an expert in early childhood education and director of the Center of Excellence for Learning Sciences at Tennessee State University, which serves as the professional development hub for the state of Tennessee in child development and early childhood training.
She agrees that early-child-care workers set the “foundations of learning that last a lifetime,” and that the salary range for degreed child-care workers is “not comparable to their counterparts with the same levels of education who work with older children. That being said,” Smith added, “I think it takes an exceptional individual to choose to become an early childhood professional or child-care worker. More importantly, it speaks to the passion of these dedicated teachers who commit to work with our youngest population of learners.”
Libonati said that dedication is evident more than ever during the current pandemic. Child care workers are “essential service workers, right along with the medical, public health, and safety workers.”
“I had center directors in tears, not wanting to shut down back in March and April, and opening back up just as soon as they were allowed, with new protocols and safety measures in place,” Libonati said. “These workers are also on the front lines. Because of them, many parents can continue working, with the peace of mind that their child is in good hands.”
It’s Not About the Money
Jacqueline Maddox is a teacher at Emma L. Minnis Junior Academy in Louisville, Kentucky. She appreciates the national collaborative support for early childhood educators. But, regardless of whether she gets a raise or certain benefits, she’s going to continue doing her job, and that’s to give the children in her care the best possible start in life.
“It’s not about the money,” Maddox said. She has worked in public and private schools and at one time owned and operated an in-home daycare. “I tell people all the time that … if you’re not prepared to be all things to these students, then you shouldn’t get into teaching. You’re not just their teacher; you’re their parent, social worker, and counselor; you’re like everything to them. So, if you’re not prepared to do that, then teaching is not for you. You should do it for the love of the children.”
The care and love paid off for 30-year-old Shaunte Stewart. As a toddler, she attended what was then Maranatha Day Care in Miami, Florida, where her parents had moved from New York. Stewart says what she learned there was long lasting.
“They incorporated in their lessons the respect and reverence of God, devotion, and praying,” Stewart, now a nurse, said. “Those things I still keep with me today.”
One person in particular who impacted Stewart was Theslyn Brown, a worker at the daycare center. Stewart said Brown is the reason she and her family are Adventist members.
“She would invite my parents to church,” Stewart recalls. “She would say, it doesn’t have to end Monday through Friday; you can also come and worship with us on Sabbath. And we did.”
Decades later, Brown is still at it. She is director of the center, now called Maranatha Child Development Center, in Miami Gardens, Florida, where she has worked for nearly 40 years, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.
“It’s a mission field,” Brown said. “I’m responsible for their development, and I enjoy doing it.”