Baptist Children's Homes Ministry Serves as Early Childhood Education Leader for 50 Years
The last child has gone home. Counters and table tops have been wiped clean, toys and
crayons have been put on shelves, and child-size chairs have been tucked away. The class teacher surveys everything one last time, turns the light off, and thinks to herself about the next day’s lesson plan as she drives away.
The building is empty now, but the echoes of laughter and children’s voices linger.
Walking down vacant halls, one can almost see children learning and playing in the shadows. Since 1965, thousands of children and thousands of families have benefited from this ministry built on a determination to be a leader among day care and early education programs, to be a bastion for families promoting wholesome living and Christian values, and to be a safe haven for all children without regard to special needs, race or backgrounds.
“Elizabeth Wagoner had a passion for families,” Mary Lou Dickey says about the founding director. “Before Baptist Children’s Homes’ (BCH) commitment to the Child Development Center, the attention in day care and early education at that time was on just the child. Elizabeth pioneered the idea of focusing on the entire family. She believed any work with a child was only successful if it was integrated at home.”
The pilot Child Development Center launched providing weekday nursery, day care and kindergarten services.
Wagoner served as the director until Dickey stepped into the position nine years later
on June 1, 1974. Dickey was hired by Wagonerfive years earlier as a kindergarten teacher and assistant director.
Dickey further enhanced parent involvement. “Moms and dads want to be recognized
and connected. There needs to be a bond between what we do and the parents if we are to provide the best for the children.”
Before becoming director, Dickey had teamed with Wagoner visiting North Carolina Baptist churches needing assistance with existing or startup day care programs. Now as director, she spent many days on the road helping hundreds of churches. She consulted on everything from beginning day care programs – buildings, program structure, furnishings and equipment – to training new and existing personnel and leadership.
The success of the program meant that more and more families wanted to be a part of the program. “We kept having families come to us and we had to turn them away,” Dickey remembers. “My attention quickly turned to expanding and growing services.”
Besides caring for three and four year olds and providing a kindergarten, the program was expanded to care for two year olds. The Child Development Center slowly grew filling every corner of the building located behind Mills Home Baptist Church on the Mills Home
campus in Thomasville. The Gregg Center was opened in 1990 to house an innovative after-school program and Linda Russo, who had worked for BCH for 11 years, was tapped to be its first director. A highlight for Dickey was the addition of the newly constructed Fleshman-Pratt Education Center in 1993. The 10,000 square-foot facility accommodates 60 children, infants to toddlers and became a pinnacle for family involvement.
Dickey says she gave her attention to fully incorporating family and helping to create the most home-like setting possible. At the dedication Dickey assured the gathering, “we will not fail” those who trust BCH with their children. Dickey credits the teachers and support staff for the success of the program during her tenure and says of her involvement, “This is where God had me to be.” After serving 35 years, she passed the mantle to Linda Russo who returned from a nine-year hiatus to become director in 2003.
Russo remains the director today and says during the past 12 years the emphasis has
remained on excellence. She brought renewed fervor asserting all teachers were to
have degrees – a two-year associates degree in early childhood development or a bachelor’s in a related area of study. She set the example by going back to college graduating in May 2009 with a bachelor’s of science in human development and family studies.
With the urging of BCH president/CEO Michael C. Blackwell, Russo undertook the challenge of pursuing coveted five star licenses for both the Fleshman-Pratt Center for infants to three-year-old and the Robert Idol Child Development Center for three to five-year-olds.
Russo remembers thinking, “How could we continue to claim to be a model program without a ‘five star’ rating?”
The five star licensing is the highest issued by the North Carolina Division of Child Development. BCH was the first organization in Davidson County to operate multiple five star centers. At the licensing celebration held October 29, 2007, Russo told those attending, “We pledge to continue to provide the highest quality of care for our children and their families.”
“As president, I have guided this ministry for 32 of its 50 years,” Blackwell says. “I have
witnessed the compassion of two directors and many staff members who have refused to offer anything but quality care to so many children and families. We stand as an advocate for early childhood development in North Carolina and we will continue to lead the way in the years to come.”