By C. Julia Nelson
cjnelson@reporternewspapers.net

Lillian McNair believes in sandbox investments.

As a community-oriented Roswell resident, in 1967 McNair volunteered her house as a free day care service to six children born into impoverished circumstances. Back then, it was strictly a volunteer service; today the grassroots effort has blossomed into the Child Development Association (CDA) of North Fulton County and although it thrives as a viable and effective non-profit organization, it is facing a new generation of challenges with an influx of enrollment requests from Sandy Springs residents.McNair understands that an investment in a toddler would last a lifetime and luckily, her community agreed. When she started the free service, she and a few neighbors recognized a need in Roswell to provide safe and affordable child care services to low income, working families. “(The non-profit) has been accomplished with a lot of blessings and miracles,” McNair said. “We worked so hard with the idea that these little children need the consideration and cooperation of more than just a few people. It’s always been our ambition to take care of those children and we do that to the extent (our recourses) allow.”

In the last 40 years, the CDA, located at 89 Grove Way in Roswell, has been unwavering in its mission “to enable the preschool children of low-income working families in our community to make a great start toward a bright future.” Every day this mission impacts about 170 children, ages three months to 5 years old.

CDA teacher Elnora Strickland has contributed to the CDA since she was a young mother in need of a helping hand with her son, shortly after it opened. After volunteering initially, Strickland trained as a teacher, earned a degree and continues her work there.

“I’ve been coming here every day for 38 years,” Strickland said. “What’s great about this program is the fact that it’s a place where people care. We care about the parents and their situations; about the children and their learning. We try to do what will keep them going in the right direction.”

Facing enrollment challenges

Donna Smythe, CDA executive director said the need for affordable child care for low income families is as strong now as it was in 1967. Unfortunately, keeping up with enrollment demands, particularly presented by neighboring Sandy Springs residents, has become an arduous challenge.

“Child care resources in this community were slim and none were affordable back then,” she said. “That situation hasn’t changed.”

Although eligibility requirements are in place, the number of eligible students continues to rise. (CDA eligibility is based on household size, household income and the lack of a caregiver in a home.) Day-to-day operations at CDA already encompass 11 classrooms with 28 full time teachers, six full time administrators and three part time teachers.

Last year, 40 pre-kindergarten CDA students fed into 17 elementary schools in North Fulton. The daily waiting list consists of about 360 children; roughly half are from Sandy Springs. More than 35 percent of current students are Sandy Springs residents.

“North Fulton is a prosperous, affluent community,” Smythe said. “It’s precisely because we are affluent that there is need (for these services). We get about five applications a week that we cannot place.”

She explained as the county grows and low wage jobs remain plentiful, the need for affordable, quality day care services only increases.

“In the last decade, the number of school-aged children in North Fulton has increased by 155 percent,” she said. “The number of children who are eligible for free and reduced lunch has increased by 572 percent. That’s our population.”

Among students who attend CDA, roughly half are of Hispanic or Latino decent, another half are African Americans and a few in between represent a mix of multiple nationalities including Asian, African and Latin American. Among the children and teachers, there are nine native languages spoken at the CDA; the diversity lends itself to a unique learning experience for the kids, Strickland said.

“It’s good in the fact that the children are learning bits and pieces of different languages and cultures,” Strickland said. “They get that (exposure) before they even go to school.”

Despite devastating odds, the CDA is doing everything in its power to meet the needs of this growing demographic. As an accredited facility, quality childcare at the CDA includes state aligned educational curriculum, identifying developmental objectives and conducting parent-teacher conferences. Additionally, special needs students are paired with professional, out-sourced community resources.

This level of care for children of low-income families is a rare commodity in North Fulton County and is in high demand. According to Smythe, the CDA represents the only source of affordable, quality, subsidized child care within a 10 mile radius between I-75 and I-85, north of I-285.

“A quality preschool experience changes every outcome for a child’s life,” Smythe said. “They’re more likely to graduate from high school, they’re more likely to go to college, own their own home, be married, never to be divorced, never to use drugs. Pick a measure and a strong preschool experience is positive to that.”

Smythe said on average, the cost to place one child in a regular day care facility is between $200 and $250 per week, or about $13,000 per year. A parent with a minimum wage job would have about $3,000 annually left to spend on other bills, she said.

“It’s just not enough,” Smythe said. “By providing affordable child care, we’re helping the children but we’re also helping the family become financially viable.”

She said one of the top priorities for the CDA is to keep parents in the work force so they can provide for their children. Financial support for CDA comes largely from charitable contributions. Many CDA families qualify for scholarships toward tuition payments, most of which are funded through various fundraising events.

“We are completely dependent on charitable contributions. We have to raise $750,000 to $850,000 annually,” Smythe said. “Fortunately this is a community that cares about kids.”

Simply put, one location cannot possibly keep up with the growing population in the lower income brackets in north Fulton.

“If someone gave us a building in Sandy Springs, I could fill it with kids in less than a month,” Smythe said.

The idea that a CDA location in Sandy Springs would have no trouble hitting enrollment capacities is a clear indication of a gap in necessary services. Unfortunately, the CDA does not have the nearly $7 million, nor the acreage it would take to build a facility.

“We’re looking for more connection to Sandy Springs because that’s where the need is great; we need to be there,” Smythe said. “We’re looking for individuals, businesses and civic groups in Sandy Springs that share the mission.”

But for now, keeping up with current needs at the existing facility, like replacing 30-year-old kitchen appliances and heating classrooms, is hard enough. Regardless, McNair is optimistic for the future of CDA in Sandy Springs.

“We need to hold on to that (sense of community),” McNair said. “We need to get together and look at our problems – if it can be done at the Child Development Association, it can be done again. We need to get a group interested in children in Sandy Springs and try to pull something together. I’d love to see it happen in Sandy Springs.”

Celebrating 40 Years:

Starting in McNair’s home and working up into the basement at a local Presbyterian church, the volunteers eventually moved into what used to be the Grove Way Center Club House at 89 Grove Way in Roswell. By its third year, the population had grown to 40 children, Smythe said.

When the program outgrew that site in 1976, volunteers raised $1 million to create a safe and ample space for the children on the same property.

“That was a cooperation of the Roswell community; everyone chipped in – the government, the public, the churches and the foundation,” McNair said. “We were lucky to have people we could call on to help us (with the new facility). We’d have never been able to do it otherwise.”

Today, not only are the same community organizations still supporting the CDA, but two of its original founders, McNair and Sylvia Hansell, still work as board members. Their dedication is a clear indication of their commitment to children and their desire to maintain the CDA as a community asset.

“Every day it’s a feeling of accomplishment knowing these children would not have had this opportunity otherwise,” McNair said.

Information about the CDA is available online at www.CDAkids.org.